Interview with a Drone Pilot 'It Is Not a Video Game'

US Major Bryan Callahan is a pilot. But while he sits in front of a monitor in America, his plane is flying over Afghanistan. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, he speaks about what flying drones is like, the difficulties of waging war in shifts and the daily stresses of his job.

Two American drones. The one in front is a Predator and the one behind is a Reaper.

Two American drones. The one in front is a Predator and the one behind is a Reaper.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Major Callahan, you started out flying F-16 jets. Now you are flying remote controlled drones -- also known as RPAs. What are the differences?

Major Bryan Callahan: The first big difference is to get your brain around the fact that you drop yourself into an airplane that's already airborne and on target on the other side of the world. Then you fly that for a period of time, and then you just hand it over to someone else. Before, when you're flying a regular plane, you go in, you do your briefing, you walk out the door, you go up, you exercise your mission, you land and you debrief. Now you walk into work, and you essentially tap a guy on the shoulder, get a quick lowdown about what's going on and then continue the flight, and then a few hours later someone else will tap you on the shoulder and relieve you. It's very different. It takes a little while to get used to.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is it harder or easier?

Callahan: In some ways it's harder, in some ways it's easier. If you fly an F-16, it's a high-performance airplane, and you're responsible for a lot of different weapons and sensors. You fly, and an hour later you come back. It is a very finite execution. With an RPA, you may very well be working that operation for weeks. It takes a lot of coordination, there are a lot of other agencies involved that I had never dealt with before. It's very much more networked. An RPA is not nearly as high-performance, as robust, and when you're trying to fly that from the other side of the world with a little bit of delay, you can't just look out the window. That can get challenging, mentally.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And afterwards you just drive home.

Callahan: In the morning you carpool or you take a bus and drive into work, you operate for an eight-hour shift, and then you drive back home.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is it not difficult to switch back and forth from war to civilian life every day?

Callahan: Yeah, people talk about that plenty with their families. We'll probably be studying the effects of that for a long time to come. Before you were at war 24/7, and when you're home you're home. This is different. I do e-mails in the morning, rush to the airplane, come out, go to the BX (editor's note: Base Exchange), get myself a hamburger, do some more e-mail, do it again, drive home. It's an adjustment.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How do you deal with that?

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Photo Gallery: Waging War with the Click of a Mouse
Callahan: Pilots are pretty good at compartmentalizing. They teach you that early and often. You need to tuck those things away and put them where they belong. We're pretty good at it.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What is it you're tucking away?

Callahan: There's stress, but it's different. With an F-16, you're talking about an hour straight of pure adrenalin rush, part of it is personal survival, keeping yourself upright and safe. With an RPA it's more of a slow burn. But you still get pretty well invested in what it is you do. You get more attached than you would think from being in Nevada.


Callahan: For instance, you're trying to protect those guys on the ground. You try to help those guys with whatever situation they're in. There are cases where you can't do anything immediate, and you may feel helpless.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Does your own physical safety make a difference for you?

Callahan: It sounds strange but being far away and safe is kind of a bummer. The other guys are exposing themselves, and that to me is still quite an honorable thing to do. So I feel like I'm cheating them. I'm relatively safe. If I screw up or miss something, if I screw up a shot, I wish it was me down there, not them. Sometimes I feel like I left them behind.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What are the benefits of drones, exactly?

Callahan: There are many. For instance, I can really give the ground force commander some time to figure out what to do. With an F-16, I got about 30, 45 minutes playtime, and the commander may only get a partial picture of what's going on. A drone shows up with a pretty good spread of weapons, and you get four hours of playtime. So I don't need to destroy my target right away. I can watch that guy, I can see who his friends are. When it comes time to strike I can strike everything. I can buy the ground force commander time.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Who makes the target decision?

Callahan: That depends on the mission. For the most part, it's the ground force commander who has the ultimate authority.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So there are no specific human targets chosen back here in the US?

Callahan: That's not really the M.O. of what we're doing, to look for a specific person. Our highest concern is to protect our people on the ground.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you think that drones will ever completely replace troops?

Callahan: I don't think so. RPAs will not replace soldiers on the ground. That's a totally different piece of national defense.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But RPAs are getting more and more common.

Callahan: True. For the Air Force, RPAs are now part of our DNA. Initially we thought okay, let's give this a try. And then it grew and it grew and it grew. Now you can't go anywhere without finding a Predator or a Reaper. We're partly a victim of our own success. Also, we operate in a war that highlights the strengths of RPAs. Their weaknesses are not much of a problem right now. They may be in future conflicts.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Which weaknesses are you talking about?

Callahan: For instance, you can't just roll your unmanned plane over and look out the window. I have to use all these very external cues, sometime we're literally using a map with pins, on the computer. In an F-16 I can use my eyeballs, I can build what we call situational awareness in two seconds flat. I have the ability to strike a target quickly.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Some have describe flying drones as turning war into a video game.

Callahan: Killing someone with an RPA is not different than with an F-15. It's easy to think that, to fall down that trap. We're well aware that if you push that button somebody can go away. It's not a video game. You take it very seriously. It's by far nowhere near a video game.

Interview conducted by Marc Pitzke in New York


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