Those unmanned aircraft that fly over war zones do have pilots. But they sit in a high-tech cockpit back in the United States. Anchor Lisa Mullins speaks with Air Force Colonel Eric Mathewson, who has spent many hours at the controls of aircraft in Afghanistan, about what's it's like to be thousands of miles away from your war zone.
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LISA MULLINS: The G-20 gathering in London is in the spotlight but things are happening elsewhere. For instance... along the volatile border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Pentagon is continuing its air attacks against Taliban and al-Qaeda militants in the region. Those attacks typically involve missiles fired by unmanned U.S. aircraft, or drones. In fact, one such strike was reported by officials and witnesses in Pakistan just today. Colonel Eric Mathewson directs the Air Force Unmanned Aircraft Systems Task Force at the Pentagon. Over the years, he has piloted both F-15s and Predator drones in missions over Afghanistan and Iraq. Col. Mathewson tells us that being behind the controls of a drone isn't all that different from piloting more traditional aircraft.
COL. ERIC MATHEWSON: Frankly, it is much like a cockpit. In fact, there are times that I've forgotten that I wasn't in an airplane because you also have a control stick, you have throttles, a gear handle, a switch for flaps. You know, all those sorts of things. Rudder couples beneath the console and you fly the airplane just as though you were flying an airplane you're sitting in.
MULLINS: So, you're flying it in real time?
MULLINS: But you are seven or eight thousand miles away from where the drone is, correct?
MATHEWSON: That's correct, yeah.
MULLINS: So, you were a conventional military combat, for how long?
MATHEWSON: Twenty-five years. I flew mostly F-15s.
MULLINS: What is the biggest difference for you?
MATHEWSON: I think, certainly, the biggest difference is not being able to use your peripheral vision or look outside the cockpit at the world unfolding. But, yet, at the same time the benefits you derive from this 1G cockpit are being able to get instant information about everything from intelligence, national-level imagery, or even forensic type information. You know, all that stuff's right at your finger tips.
MULLINS: So, if you were flying a conventional F-15 and you're in the seat how would you have received the intelligence then?
MATHEWSON: Well, what happens is you get an intelligence briefing before you step to the aircraft. Once you get in the aircraft, except for some information that has immediate relevance to your mission, you're not getting a large amount of intelligence. And, over time, a number of years ago when I was flying over Iraq in the F15 and we were flying ten hour caps. So, you're sitting on station for ten hours. And so there's a level of fatigue there day, after day, after day, which you largely mitigate with these systems because you can change out your crews constantly to retain that, sort of, freshness.
MULLINS: So, how would a mission itself differ if you're in a conventional NQ9 or a drone? Would the target be the same? Would the execution of the mission be the same?
MATHEWSON: Much of it is, frankly, identical to what you do in traditionally manned aircraft. The difference is those ten hour combat air patrols we flew in the eagle, for example, over Iraq, those you'd be back and forth to the tanker three or four times. You incur the cost of the refueling platform. So, you have, if you will, some efficiencies and, I would argue, a heightened situational awareness for many types of missions. I remember early on during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom flying a predator, there were times when predators were being gauged by surface to air missiles and by ground fire. And what was interesting to me was that I took it no less personally flying the predator, eight thousand miles away where I was not as risk, I took it just as personally. And it did not change in any way how careful we were flying the aircraft when you're actually targeting something.
MULLINS: Well, how about if you're not the target, but if you are targeting someone on the ground? What is it like to be at a distance from the person who you are trying to kill?
MATHEWSON: It's no different. If you look through history whether it be the longbow or the rifled weapon, over time you're able to engage the enemy at greater and greater distances.
MULLINS: Do you see the same results, whether you're in the plane or not?
MATHEWSON: Actually you're probably more intimate with the target in unmanned aircrafts just simply by virtue of the fact that you're more persistent. You are loitering in the area, more likely, and you have this very, very high fidelity sensor.
MULLINS: What is the difference when you are looking at a target, and obviously the issue of civilian deaths and injuries is, I know, one that's extremely important to the military, but certainly, right now, as well, to the people of Pakistan, in particular, who believe the drones have killed civilians. Do you have as much control over civilian deaths? Do you have the knowledge of the repercussions if you're not there in the plane?
MATHEWSON: Crews flying unmanned aircraft systems don't have some of the distractions that you have in the cockpit. And so you are very accurate. And you have the time, you have the wherewithal to ensure that you don't have collateral damage or friendly fire situations. And all the checks and balances that go into that process of targeting. And all the emotion involved about the seriousness of the task and the implications or ramifications of not executing it properly. There is no difference for an unmanned aircraft aircrew, even though you're distant. You're virtually there. Your mind is that involved in the game.
MULLINS: Do you feel as though, given the current situation, right now, especially with Afghanistan and Pakistan, that the use of these drones can augment what the U.S. is trying to accomplish? I mean, they remain controversial for a variety of reasons. You seem to have a lot of confidence in them. How strong an asset do you believe they are?
MATHEWSON: Our level of confidence in unmanned aircraft and the role they'll play in the future is that high that we will consider them as viable alternatives for all missions. In fact, I suspect there will be a time in the future when you may not have any actual, physical experience in the air. And so, I'm just projecting forward into the future, say twenty years, when our technology will have evolved and our human system interfaces will have evolved, it may become less and less important.
MULLINS: That's Col. Eric Mathewson director of the Air Force Unmanned Aircraft Systems Task Force at the pentagon.