RAF drone pilot 'has nightmares about watching people burn to death'

RAF Reaper drone pilot ‘has nightmares about watching people burn to death and women and children lying dead in the street’ after firing Hellfire missiles at ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq while 2,200 miles away in UK

  • The officer said he would ‘play God’ by firing missiles from RAF Waddington
  • The vivid detail of the bloody aftermath captured by high-definition cameras 
  • The military man, 43, believes some of the deaths were ‘morally questionable’

A former Reaper drone pilot has opened up about his lasting psychological scarring after years of watching people be blown up in vivid detail.

The officer said he would ‘play God’ by firing missiles at ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria from specialist cockpits 2,200 miles away at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire.

But the high-definition cameras that captured the bloody aftermath meant it was like he was only a matter of metres away – and still haunts him.

‘My nightmares are about watching people burn to death and watching women and children lying dead in the street,’ the 43-year-old said.  

The military man of two decades, known only as R for security reasons, believes some of the deaths – allegedly including civilians – were ‘morally questionable’.

After being medically discharged last year with PTSD, he is now speaking out after being denied compensation on the basis he was ‘not exposed to death’.

The officer said he would ‘play God’ by firing missiles at ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria from specialist cockpits 2,000 miles away at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire (file picture from 2017) 

The Reaper, pictured here at Khandahar Airport in Afghanistan, can fly at 290mph at a maximum of 50,000 feet. It is armed here with a pair of £80,000 Hellfire missiles as well as two Paveway II laser guided bombs which cost £30,000 each 

In an interview with The Times he said: ‘When you are killing the enemy you see it in so much detail because you are watching them, sometimes for hours or even days on end, then lingering afterwards, watching the impact of what you have just done. 

‘Your brain can’t tell the difference between 3,000 miles and 3ft.’

R joined 13 Squadron at RAF Waddington in 2014, the same year a US-led coalition including Britain began airstrikes in the region controlled by ISIS. 

He was put in charge of the unmanned MQ-9 Reaper, equipped with four Hellcat missiles used by a three-person crew to remotely annihilate targets. 

Upon joining the officer, who says he was already suffering anxiety after losing three fellow servicemen in an airplane crash previously, was told by colleagues 13 Squadron was known as ‘the asylum’ because of the mental toll the killing takes.

Indeed in 2019 Squadron Wing Commander Mark Jackson, the ranking officer, said being a drone pilot can be ‘quite exhausting’. 

Pilots operating the drones sit in their cockpits for eight-hour shifts monitoring potential targets

With the level of surveillance involved, ‘you can’t help but have some form of a relationship, mentally, with those you are looking at and observing’, he said. 

‘But the key point is that everything we are doing is about protecting UK citizens and UK lives,’ he added.

Yet R described watching US troops attack civilians in a market, and raised concerns that Syrian regime fighters were targeted, rather than ISIS extremists, during a mission in Deir Ezzor in September 2016.

He said he was demoted and posted to a different unit as a result, before being medically discharged.

R is among eight people who have submitted their testimonies as part of a dossier by Justice4Troops, which aims to launch an MP-led inquiry into the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme.

An MoD spokesman said: ‘We do not recognise the language nor allegations made with respect to the working environment on our Reaper squadrons.’ 

He added: ‘All allegations of civilian casualties are subject to extensive investigation. We continue to do everything we can to minimise the risk of civilian casualties through the rigorous targeting processes and the professionalism of our crews.’

The General Atomics MQ-9A Reaper drone

The MQ-9 Reaper drone is designed to operate at medium altitudes for long endurance missions. 

The unmanned drone can fly for up to 20 hours when it is unarmed or 12 hours when carrying weapons. 

It is used for Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) and strike missions. 

It is able to remain above a target for long periods providing live data to its controllers on the ground station in the US or the UK. 

A separate team are responsible for arming and maintaining the weapons system ‘in theatre’.  

The RAF Reaper drone can be equipped with four hellfire missiles as well as a pair of 500lb laser-guided bombs 

Powerplant: one 900shp Honeywell TPE331-10 turboprop

Length: 36ft (10.97m)

Height: 12ft (3.66m)

Wingspan: 69ft 3½in (21.12m)

Maximum take-off weight: 10,500lb (4,760kg)

Maximum speed: 250kt (463km/h)

Endurance (clean): 20 hours

Endurance (with weapons): more than 12 hours

Service ceiling (clean): more than 50,000ft

Service ceiling (with weapons): more than 30,000ft

Armament: two 500lb GBU-12 laser-guided bombs and four AGM-114 Hellfire missiles

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