Drones are here to stay, and why not? Hollywood paints them as tiny rocket planes that zip around the world ejaculating death from above, and there's no possibility of a pilot getting hurt. That might partially explain the 61 percent approval rating drones enjoy in America.
But no matter how you feel about targeted killings and unrestricted drone warfare, I can guarantee you don't know shit about how these flying deathbots really work. My name is Brandon Bryant, and I spent six years fighting America's wars via robot. Here's what you probably didn't know ...
(Once you've learned how little you know about drone warfare, why not learn how little you know about cold war spies in Cracked's new De-Textbook.)
#6. It's as Traumatizing as Being a Combat Pilot
On the very first mission I ever flew, we saw what's called "The Eye of Sauron" -- a spot where a fiery tire was used to soften asphalt in order to plant an IED. The cool metal against the hot asphalt created an eye effect. A convoy was heading straight for it, but we couldn't communicate with them. They were jamming all radio frequencies in a (useless) attempt to stop any bombs from detonating. I don't think I've ever felt more helpless than I did in that moment.
Five American soldiers died when that convoy hit the IED.
Veronique de Viguerie / Getty
War is ugly. While fighter pilots swoop by it and drop a payload of vitamin E(xplode), drone pilots have to stick around and stare at the aftermath. Following a bunch of soldiers on a raid of some house? You'll get to sit back and watch while people fight and die on camera. There's a reason defense department studies find that drone pilots suffer from PTSD at the same rate as regular combat pilots, even though they're sitting in a chair thousands of miles away from the action.
The violence is only part of it. The work itself is grueling. You can't sleep. You can't read (I broke that rule more often than not). You can't do anything to entertain yourself but look at the screen. Now do that for three to five years, 11.5 hours a day. If you ask to take a break, you'll be told, "The guys overseas don't get breaks." By the time you've flown a few thousand missions, you might start dreaming in infrared. You'll certainly have trouble telling the difference between your dreams and the real world.
Christian Science Monitor / Getty
"Oh God, is this a real joystick or indecent exposure?"
Ever had one of those nights where you chain yourself to a video game until you pass out, and then you have dreams about that game? It's like that. Only the video game is your job, so you're actually dreaming about work every single night. But that just brings us to the next point ...
#5. It Isn't Like a Video Game
Ethan Miller / Getty
The video game comparison gets used a lot with drone warfare, and it seems like it should work that way. You're sitting behind a screen, looking for bad guys and firing missiles at them. The fact that those missiles and bad guys are real doesn't change the fact that you're just sitting at a computer in the military equivalent of a nerd cave.
Ethan Miller / Getty
So many Reapers have been lost to pilots ramming mushrooms and turtles. That shit is deeply programmed.
But operating a real drone in a real war is less like playing a video game and more like watching YouTube videos of a road trip filmed via Russian dashboard cam. You can't make out faces or license plates, and the guy flying the drone doesn't even get that much. He sees something like this:
Ethan Miller / Getty
That lime-green field goal post covering the screen? That tells the pilot he's turning.
Wait, did you think the pilot was the only one involved in flying the thing? Not at all. The optics guy (me!), called a sensor operator, has to make sure the pilot's ADHD doesn't detract from the mission via visuals that look closer to GoldenEye 007 than an engine of war. But if that still kind of sounds like a video game to you, there is a key part missing: the bit where you actually play, i.e., find your target and blow it up.
We don't get to pick our targets. Instead, someone else watches the footage while we fly along and, every now and then, decides some building or person we've spotted needs to have projectiles thrown at it. They call several more important people until eventually someone whole countries away from my chair makes the decision to fire. And even that doesn't happen often.
Ethan Miller / Getty
You will believe a button can taunt a man.
See, drones are actually "piloted" by a team of people on several different continents. Planes get a shitload more complicated when the dude running them is 6,000 miles away. Since you can't safely launch an aircraft with so much lag in the signal (more on that later), every drone is actually launched by a separate pair of operators on the ground somewhere in Afghanistan or Iraq.
So two different crews means four operators per drone. But if you think that's all it takes, you haven't been to the DMV in a while. Every crew also has a mission coordinator who gives us our intel and a "customer" who has some very good reason for our $16 million robot to circle wherever it circles. There's also a screener who writes down a summary of each mission for our bosses, because they like to read the drone equivalent of the Twilight series every day of their lives.
Scott J. Ferrell / CG-Roll Call Group / Getty
"... the Drone sparkled in the sunlight, like the penis of some huge gray vampire."
The point being, it takes a short bus full of people to decide whether those farmers hauling missile-shaped boxes are nefarious or not. Add it all up and drone pilots work half-day shifts with few breaks and no phone privileges, and 85 percent of the time there's no action. My greatest accomplishment as an operator was being part of the longest Predator mission ever flown. It had no missiles, just a buttload of fuel. We launched, flew the entire shift, left for the night, came back the next day, and jumped in on that drone -- which was still in the air. I flew it my entire shift and landed it that night.
So maybe it is like a video game -- if you only play flight simulators in half-day stretches with a thin film of Vaseline over your screen.
Ethan Miller / Getty
And if your Kinect was the size of a person.
#4. It Doesn't Look Like the Movies, Either
Gary Williams / Getty
The first time I saw Hollywood's take on a drone was in one of the Transformers movies. There's some big shootout with a robot scorpion and, right as Michael Bay gets ready to climax, a Predator drone jets onto the scene for some deus ex rocket-pissing machina:
And that soaring dildo of murder is controlled through this bank of awesome-looking computer monitors ...
... in a crowded control room filled with a standard array of Important-Looking Military Guys, one of whom does his uniform shopping at Target:
Things look pretty much the same in The Day the Earth Stood Still, only there's a random helicopter parked in the middle of the room. The movie-army operates on the same principles as a bunch of 11-year-olds playing with Micro Machines.
Somewhere, off in the distance, the top of a skull-shaped rock breaks open to reveal missile batteries.
That's all the invention of Hollywood's most thoroughly cocained minds. The stark reality is that drone operators are stuck together in a tiny metal box that smells like ass. Your "office" is 8 feet wide, 7.5 feet tall, and 30 feet long. Most of it is filled with computers. You need a special code to get into each box, and you're pretty much alone with your partner for the duration of the shift. It's always kept at 68 degrees, so you're cold. And the lights are typically off. Over the years, the stench of each individual person gets sucked into the seat. A couple pilots and I came up with a mathematical equation for how many farts each seat absorbed over the course of the year. It was around 17,000.
Reuters / DailyMail
Do not light a match in here.
This is what the "cockpit" of a drone really looks like. If you'd like to know what it smells like, visit the last day of Comic-Con and start sniffing chairs.