According to a just-released Navy research paper, pilots of the MQ-1 Predator unmanned air vehicles are the most fatigued crews in the military, which seriously affects job performance, operational safety and family relationships. The most worrying thing is the reasons why and the lack of a clear solution:
M&S did not identify an alternative shift schedule which would result in improved work effectiveness over that predicted for the current schedule [...] the root problem for this population was not the shift system features themselves, but rather a lack of adequate manpower to provide sufficient recovery opportunities.
Simply put: they don't have any idea about why this is happening. To begin with, these pilots work from the comfort of a chair in their home bases—with no real dangers beyond a few extra pounds and evil hemorrhoids. Just like bloggers.
Unlike "real" fighter or bomber pilots, however, these crews fly the Predators using computer stations that offer them a virtual view of the Predator is seeing, as well as all the on-board instrumentation. In a way, it's like any flight simulator user, except that the images, data and target are real, as well as the payloads.
It even sounds relaxing and fun, but some time ago the Pentagon ordered a study about the health of these elite office chair pilots and found that they were indeed the most fatigued of the military flight crews. As a result, they put a plan into action to help ease their situation: the flight crews got better schedules and one extra day off to enjoy.
However, even after these measures, the new study has found that they still sleep badly and the situation is exactly the same: "nearly 50% of surveyed crewmembers met the diagnostic threshold for levels of daily sleepiness which can be expected to adversely impact job performance and safety."
Quite frankly, I find hard to image how a Predator pilot could be more fatigued than a fighter pilot doing combat missions from an aircraft carrier, but who knows, maybe the aviator eyeglasses give these special powers, while making ground crews look like a moron like me. [Navy Study (PDF) via The Dew Line]