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Tips on Coping with Operational Stress

U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Cody H. Ramirez

Source: U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Cody H. Ramirez

Drone pilots and sensor operators are a growing and essential community of warriors in today’s force. As an operator of a remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), teammates on the ground rely on you to provide critical coverage and protection. Drone pilots and sensor operators experience a unique set of challenges as they provide combat support on the home front. Many are frequently exposed to images of extreme events while at work. This fact, combined with long work hours, frequent shift changes, and the expectation that warriors can turn on and off their combat mindset around their work schedule, contributes to more than 40 percent of drone pilots and sensor operators reporting high levels of stress. 1

This article provides useful tips on recognizing the signs of stress and resources and tools to help stateside RPA operators cope with stress and strengthen resilience.

Signs of Stress as a Result of Manning RPAs

Operating a RPA can be psychologically and emotionally demanding. Long hours, schedule changes, low staffing, shift work and balancing mission duties and responsibilities at home can result in high levels of stress.3 Common signs of stress among drone and sensor operators include:1,4,5

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue
  • Negative outlook
  • Feelings of guilt

Individuals respond differently to operational stress and display varying signs of stress. Symptoms such as a change in behavior may appear immediately after a stressful event or develop gradually. Learn more about the signs of operational and combat stress in the Real Warriors Campaign article, “Combat Stress: A Natural Result of Heavy Mental and Emotional Work.”

Tips and Resources to Help You Cope

If you think you might be experiencing operational stress as a result of your duties as a drone or sensor operator, use the following resources to help you cope:

  • Reach out to your commanding officer (CO) via your chain of command or medical department for support. Someone from your chain of command or medical department is available to listen to any concerns that you may have and help identify psychological health resources available to you at your installation.
  • Talk to other drone pilots or sensor operators. Sharing your experiences with a trusted peer who can relate to your experiences can help you cope with stress.
  • Complete a confidential, psychological health self-assessment to help you understand symptoms that may result from operational stress and identify psychological health resources.
  • Understand your ability to cope with stress by taking a confidential self-assessment of your resilience skills and find resources to help you reinforce your resilience.
  • Contact the Psychological Health Resource Center to identify psychological health resources in your community. Speak with the center's trained health resource consultants, available 24/7, by calling 866-966-1020 or log on to the Real Warriors Campaign live chat.

Reaching Out is Sign of Strength

The work of a drone pilot or sensor operator can be demanding and experiencing stress in these jobs is common. It’s important to learn how to cope with stress successfully, strengthen your resilience and utilize care and support resources in your community so that you can perform at your peak on and off the job.

Additional Resources


1 Zucchino, D. “Troops who ‘Telecommute to the war zone’ feel its effects.” (2012, March 20). The Seattle Times.
2 Bumiller, E. “Air Force Drone Operators Report High Levels of Stress.” (2011, Dec. 18). The New York Times.
3 Forbes, Col. J. “RPA/Intel Stressors,” (2011, Nov. 3). U.S. Air Force.
4 Ouma, J. A., Chappelle, W. L., and Salinas, A. “Facets Of occupational burnout among U.S. Air Force Active Duty and National Guard/Reserve MQ-1 predator and MQ-9 reaper operators,” [PDF 344.75KB]. (2011, June). Air Force Research Laboratory.
5 Fisher Jr., C. R., Ortega Jr., Col. H.J. & Stancyk,  Col. D. “Telewarfare and military medicine: White paper/state of the art report on AFMS support to the emerging paradigm of employed-in-place operations,” [PDF 566.12KB]. (2011, Sept. 30). Air Force Medical Support Agency

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