I recently spent three years flying MQ-9 Reaper drones for the military as a contract pilot working for General Atomics, the manufacturer of the MQ-9. I have written a short book about my experiences in training to fly the MQ-9 and my four deployments to locations around the world. There are three hurdles to getting the book published: getting approval from the Pentagon that no classified information was disclosed, getting approval from General Atomics that no intellectual property was disclosed, and finding a publisher. I can’t work on finding a publisher and give them the full manuscript until I get the approvals from the Pentagon and General Atomics. I recently received clearance from the Pentagon after nine months of coordination. I’m still working with General Atomics. In the meantime here is the introduction to my book as a teaser.
UPDATE: My book is now available from the publisher directly or on Amazon.
It was the day before my 70th birthday in September 2018 when I stepped off the plane at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq to help fight ISIS, the Taliban and whoever else was fomenting trouble in the Middle East. This story relates how I got here and places I went after that.
I flew my last combat sortie in an F-4 from Korat, Thailand to Cambodia on July 1st, 1973, attacking North Vietnamese supply lines to South Vietnam. Flying drones in Iraq was going to be a different experience.
While the efficacy of drones is obvious to me, I had been a long-time critic of the Air Force integration of remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) into the force structure in terms of selecting, assigning, and handling personnel involved with flying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones. It seemed criminal to me to take a newly minted pilot straight out of pilot training and assign him or her to flying drones. Actually, it seemed mean to assign anybody to fly drones. I thought it would be better to let a person get some experience and maturity flying manned aircraft before sending them to fly drones. Another problem for people who got assigned to fly drones was the fact that, early on, they were producing drones faster than the Air Force could produce pilots and sensor operators so once assigned to fly drones it was hard to break out of that community and get back into manned aircraft. Fortunately for the Air Force, I had no conduit to voice my dissatisfaction with what I thought was poor management of resources. I also had no ability to influence anybody in this area.
Those of us who flew combat missions in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam conflict also heard of drone crews suffering from the stress of flying drones. Us old heads had a hard time understanding how it could be stressful flying a drone from a control van that wasn’t going to suffer any injuries if the drone got shot down. The reasons for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for drone crews were explained to me by people who had been there and done that and they made sense. The oversight and scrutiny when flying drones were intense. Those of us who dropped bombs from F-4s and F-105s rarely saw the actual death and destruction we created. Drone crews saw it every day because they had to monitor their targets to get permission to strike those targets and then they watched them explode on their video displays. Supervisors and intelligence observers could easily identify collateral damage and assign blame. So, while there was no threat of being shot down, needing to try to escape and evade on the ground or the possibility of being captured as a prisoner of war, there were other mental challenges to deal with.Another drone pilot told me of the dichotomy of having breakfast with his wife and children before sending the kids to school and then driving to the base, getting in the control vanand being interjected into the combat operations halfway around the world since the drones in Afghanistan and Iraq were remotely piloted from bases in Nevada, California and other stateside locations.
Finally, media reports of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq seemed inadequate for two reasons: the media’s basic aversion to the military and their ignorance of military operations which lead to their inability to accurately report the situation. I wanted to know what was really going on. I appreciated military speakers who briefed military affiliated organizations I belonged to, but it was still second-hand knowledge. I wanted a way to see for myself.
My journey to Iraq started at a monthly luncheon with eight or ten fellow pilots at the Casa Machado restaurant at Montgomery Field in San Diego in October of 2017. At our monthly luncheons we solved many world problems amongst ourselves. The solutions we came up with went no farther than the table where we were sitting as our 6 degrees of influence didn’t reach national policy makers.
I had been working for John and Martha King at King Schools for 11 years developing pilot training courses starting as a contract subject matter expert (SME), then getting hired as a full-time course developer and SME and working my way up in the organization to become the Vice President of Course Development with several flight instructors working for me to develop and maintain our courses. Our courses needed constant updating thanks to changes in the FAA regulations. However, there was no more progression available for me and the job was getting stale.
At our lunch meeting in October the subject of drones came up and one of the pilots said a friend of his at General Atomics told him General Atomics needed drone pilots to support the military because the military couldn’t generate enough pilots internally to meet their operational needs. General Atomics wanted civilian pilots with a commercial pilot’s certificate, an instrument rating, the ability to get an FAA second class medical certificate, at least 500 hours of pilot-in-command time and the ability to get a secret security clearance with the military. I met all those requirements, so I looked at the job opportunities on the General Atomics website, found an open position for a deployable pilot and applied. A positive for me was that I wouldn’t have to relocate. I could live anywhere and deploy from that location once I was qualified. Within 48 hours I got an automated, polite, “Thanks but no thanks” e-mail. I e-mailed the contact in General Atomics (GA) and told him I applied but was rejected. He reassured me that was the nature of the GA human resources system. He said I should apply for every listed pilot position and keep applying. I went back to the GA website, found five positions for deployable pilots and applied for all of them. Within 48 hours I got four more “no-thank-yous” and one “We’d like to talk,” please respond to schedule a telephone interview.
The telephone interview in early December was very straight forward and all the HR person wanted to do was verify the information on my application. Shortly after the telephone interview I got a phone call saying they would like to do an in-person interview and would fly me into Los Angeles or Ontario from San Diego and arrange a rental car and a hotel in Palmdale or Victorville for an interview at their facility halfway between Palmdale and Victorville.
I wanted to schedule an interview after the holidays in January and I asked if I could just fly myself into their facility at El Mirage. That threw her for a loop. She said she’d have to check to see if that was possible. She called back a day later to say that I couldn’t land at their facility, so I said I’d fly into the airport at Victorville, CA about 10 miles from the General Atomics facilities. She said there wasn’t any commercial service into Victorville, still not comprehending I planned to fly myself in my own rental airplane. Once we got that straightened out, she said no problem, they would arrange a rental car for me at the Victorville airport to get to their offices.
As the day for the interview in January approached the weather was questionable so I called to ask if they could arrange a hotel for me and I would drive myself up from San Diego the day before the interview and then drive back to San Diego after the interview. The travel coordinator was happy to handle the changes and I was on my way.
When I got to the facility I checked in with security and was directed to a trailer where the interviews would take place. First up was the HR person I had been talking with on the phone to make all the arrangements and again all she wanted to do was go over my application and verify the information. When she got done and asked if I had any questions I asked when a hiring decision would be made. To my surprise she said, “Today.” This was a refreshing change compared to the multiple interview hiring process at King Schools. Next up was one of the actual pilot managers who asked about my background. He was a former Navy pilot and appreciated my F-4 and F-15 experience. He wanted to know if I could qualify for a second-class FAA medical certificate. I already had one so that was off the table. There was never any discussion of my age thanks to anti-discrimination rules even though it was clearly on my application. Another question was if I thought I’d have any trouble getting a secret security clearance. Since I had previously held a top-secret clearance, I didn’t think there would be a problem renewing my clearance to secret. The interview was on a Thursday, and he wanted to know when I had last flown. He smiled when I said, “The day before yesterday.” They had been getting a lot of applicants who met the qualifications but were not currently flying. When we got done, he said the HR person would be back to give me an offer letter and set up a start date. Boom, end of process! I wanted to give a month’s notice to King Schools rather than the standard 2 weeks and I wanted to take some time off before starting my training. We agreed on a start date in April contingent on a successful background check. I then drove to visit security, start the background check and get instructions to complete the application for a secret security clearance. After that I headed back to San Diego. I submitted my resignation letter to King Schools the following day. I was eager to start a new adventure