What It's Like to Pilot a Drone

Heather Linebaugh says she was always afraid she'd killed the wrong people
By Kevin Spak,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 30, 2013 1:48 PM CST
What It's Like to Pilot a Drone
A student pilot and sensor operator man the controls of a MQ-9 Reaper in a ground-based cockpit during a training mission at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base, Syracuse, New York, June 6, 2012.   (AP Photo/TSgt Ricky Best, Defense Department)

When politicians and military officials make the US and British drone programs sound like an expert, high-precision affair, Heather Linebaugh has the urge to ask some questions. Like: Why do they feel the need to deliver false, limited, or misleading statistics about civilian casualties? "How many women and children have you seen incinerated by a Hellfire missile?" And most of all, "How many soldiers have you seen die on the side of the road in Afghanistan because our ever-so-accurate UAVs were unable to detect an IED?"

In a Guardian op-ed, Linebaugh, a former drone pilot, explains that the cameras attached to drones are so poor that their human pilots can rarely spot explosives, and are "constantly" unsure if they're seeing people carrying weapons or benign objects like shovels. Drone pilots may be thousands of miles away, but they're still exposed to the psychological horrors of seeing so many die—while additionally carrying the guilt of being unsure "if we destroyed an innocent civilian's life all because of a bad image or angle." Linebaugh lost two friends and colleagues to suicide within a year of leaving the military. Click to read her full piece. (Read more drones stories.)

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