Retired military drone operator shares experience of remote piloting
FARMINGTON — During his Air Force service, retired Lt. Col. Bruce H. Black spent two tours flying cargo on C-130 planes in Iraq and Afghanistan. But his longest combat operation was spent behind a computer with a joystick just outside Las Vegas, Nev.
Inside a mobile trailer at Creech Air Force Base, Black flew an unmanned aerial vehicle, the MQ-1 Predator, commonly referred to as a drone. They are heavily armed, pilotless planes that ushered in a new technological aspect to the theater of war.
"It was like the Wild West again. It was a brand new weapons system, no (regulations). They became the most requested asset in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," Black said. "To this day, we're flying the prototype. Everything is on a keyboard. You're flying the computer and the computer flies the drone. Everybody calls it a video game, but it's not that good."
Early software that controlled the drones required an adjustment, especially to Black who took a lot of pride in his piloting skills.
"The engineers didn't care about human factors. The trigger on the original aircraft, you're getting ready to fire a missile and then hit one of two buttons ... but if you hit the wrong one, it was on the wrong side of the stick, you shut the engine down. So we put Velcro on that switch to avoid the problem."
Black said his time piloting drones was largely for surveillance, not firing missiles. And despite appearances, he said, the work was stressful.
"It's hours and days of boredom punctuated by a few moments of stark terror," Black said. "But for those seconds, you had to really be on your best game."
Black credits the camaraderie of his squadron and his adaptation to the rigors of virtual duty for making the work ultimately rewarding.
"I was shooting two weeks after I got there and saved hundreds of people, including Iraqis and Afghanis," he said. "It turned out to be serendipity times 100. We get out of our shifts -- three 8-hour shifts -- and the guys I was in a squadron with, we'd get out of the box and we'd go down to Buffalo Wild Wings, drink beer and debrief. It was surreal. It didn't take long for you to realize how important the work is. The value that the weapon system brings to the fight is not apparent 'till you're there. People have a hard time sometimes seeing that."
One example of the drone's contribution to battlefield success is the strike on al-Qaida terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq in 2006.
"You're still looking through a soda straw, but a real good one," Black said. "If someone's holding up their fingers, you can tell how many they're holding up. Zarqawi, you know. We sat on him -- two predators several thousand feet up -- for 600 hours before we dropped 500-pounders on him."
Black said he doubts the conclusions of an Amnesty International report published this year on an incident where a Pakistani civilian allegedly was killed while working in her garden, though he admits he hasn't read it in its entirety.
"For every Predator, it takes 175 people to keep it airborne for 24 hours. There are a zillion eyes looking always," Black said. "I don't know if that lady was hit by a predator or not. If there was a crater in the ground, maybe she stepped on a land mine. The Hellfire (guided missile), a 10-pound warhead, it's very small, it doesn't cause a crater. It's used as a fragmentation device. If there was a crater in the ground where she was, I don't think she was hit by a predator. We don't go around spending $50,000, $100,000, firing on ladies picking vegetables. It just doesn't make sense. Every shot that we took during my time, except one, was what we meant to shoot at. We were that careful. I loose the weapon only after everybody behind me gives approval."
That one shot involved a miscommunication between the drone pilot and the ground command, he said, and resulted in civilian casualties. He didn't provide any further details.
Black killed people, he said, but saved U.S. and coalition troops and civilians. During one fire fight, Black said he got orders to strike a home that he could see was populated by a family.
"I saw at least one child, and I called 'knock it off' and told them 'your bad guys are behind the house in a hut, not in the house.' There was a long pause and then I was given new coordinates on the hut, which saved the family."
Piloting drones in a windowless "box" stateside while commuting home at night does take a toll, Black admits, though he believes a positive attitude buffered him from such common side effects as post-traumatic stress disorder.
"You're right in the middle of a fire fight, your shift ends and your relief opens the door and walks in and you wonder, 'Where am I?' It's surreal. I'm hearing the shells hit the humvee that (the ground troops are) in and I was shocked to realize I wasn't in an airplane. I wasn't in Afghanistan. My family lived here (in Farmington) and I'd fly home on the weekends. You're doing combat -- six days on, three days off -- somebody's counting on you for life and death. You get back home and you've been inundated with trying to strike this guy, save this guy, and your wife says, 'Honey, should she wear a pink or blue tutu?' Or I'd walk into, 'Honey, your truck leaked oil on the driveway,' and I know that's important, but I'm sorry. I just can't get excited about it. Nobody's going to bleed because of that stuff."
As with the ongoing technological changes in the world, technology also is changing the perception of combat service.
"It's not the fear of being killed but what you are doing, the responsibilities you are carrying are just as real as any other combat operator," Black said.