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Fighter Pilots and UAVs, 60 Minutes Reports

Posted by aaron on May 21, 2009

I saw a story on 60 Minutes about the Air Force’s drone wing at Creech AFB west of Las Vegas. They discussed the valuable work that this unit is accomplishing with the Predator and Reaper. And let me be clear, these UAVs are an extremely important asset, flying unique and vital missions. They are able to provide critical support to fighter operations in theater, search and destroy the enemy on their own and, most importantly, assist our troops on the ground.
PredatorHere’s one of the issues I had with this whole 60 Minutes piece. They interviewed two people, the wing commander and, I'm guessing, a squadron commander, both of them F-16 fighter pilots. They both spoke the party line quite well; great system, demanding, high stress missions, ultimate support of troops on the ground. But when asked how this mission can be gratifying to young, some already fighter trained, pilots, here’s the wing commander's answer.  “Once you get over the fact that you’re not . . . getting into a cockpit, this is so much more satisfying because every time you fly (!?!?!), every single day, you're having an impact on the ground." Then he was asked, "So, you wouldn't go back to flying fighter jets?" His answer, "I'll be honest with you, I wouldn't."  First, I'd say he's not being honest, to the interviewer or to himself .  Next, I guess that’s pretty easy to say for a guy with a couple thousand hours of fighter time. 

Understandably they didn’t ask that question of the junior officer UAV pilots that got yanked out of their initial fighter assignment or the guy that didn’t even get that far when he got a UAV tour right out of pilot training. I don’t care what the capabilities of the Predator and Reaper are.  There’s no way any fighter pilot would rather be sitting in a dark room flying a drone than to be strapped in a fighter cockpit orbiting over an enemy position. Of course, the wing commander had to say what he said but you can’t tell me he wouldn’t rather be a commander of a fighter wing at Aviano, Langley, Spangdahlem, etc. There's no way.
ReaperOne other comment made by the squadron commander was somewhat interesting. He said, "I'm living the same fight as those guys, or at least I'm seeing the same fight." His interview implied that the stress of a fighter combat sortie compared to the stress of one of these UAV missions. Come on guy. Even if your UAV mission results in dead bad guys, you’re sitting in a lounge chair in Nevada.  You’re going home to suburbia and on the way maybe you’ll stop and pickup some Baskin-Robbins. Your Predator or Reaper may be orbiting over a Taliban stronghold but you’re not. You don’t have the concerns of a flight lead. You don’t have the apprehensions of a wingman. You do not have the myriad of challenges repeatedly faced by a fighter pilot. You do not have the thrill of speed and the resulting G force during a sixty degree dive bomb pass or a strafing run right down the street of an Afghan town. Your exhilaration in a successful mission comes no where near that experienced by a fighter pilot pulling off target and seeing an enemy position explode in flames. You are not putting your life on the line and that's what makes the fighter pilot life exciting and their success so elating. 

I’m glad somebody’s doing the UAV mission, it’s important work, but don’t try to compare it to fighter pilot business or it's rewards, because you can’t and it doesn’t.

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Posted by Booly on
Man, I'm so tired of those guys flying UAVs and pretending it's the same as flying a combat aircraft...

Hell yeah, UAVs are useful for long missions, recce or for loitering around combat zones for a long time, but there's no f*in' comparison between flying a fighter and droppin' ordnance with an UAV!

And I know what I'm talkin' about, cuz I'm supposed to become an UAV guy! And no matter what kind of UAV I'll operate, I'll never "fly" it, and even less "pilot" it! To fly and to pilot requires an important thing: physically leave the ground while handling the controls!
Here in Belgium, no fighter pilot will ever fly an UAV, it's an NCO job, and it gives another perspective to the whole sh*t, happily for us UAV people, and for the viper drivers as well, cuz nobody will have the idea of trying to replace combat aircraft with UAVs... At least not on the operational level!

So of course, UAV and combat aircraft are complementary, UAVs are great to lase targets and assist combat pilots in their job, as it's great to provide some CAS, but believe me, I'd sell my own mother ('scuse me, Mom... you know I love ya! ;) ) to fly the Viper, there's no comparison between sitting in the cockpit and sitting in a container at a FOB or a bunker at home! It may be satisfying to bring support to ground troops and arrange a meeting between bad guys and their maker, but I'd never buy that Wing Commander's fairy tale about not wanting to fly fighter jets again...

So thanks for sharing your views, Rowdy, mine may be on the other side of the fence when it comes to the job, we're completely agreein' with each other ;)
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