The Air Force calls them “go” pills, and that is what they do: keep pilots going in the air long after their tired minds and bodies would have preferred to fall asleep.
The stimulants have been used by airmen since World War II, and were doled out by the thousands in the Persian Gulf War and Afghanistan. But the practice is coming under new scrutiny in the investigation of two F-16 pilots who were taking Air Force-provided amphetamines when they mistook a midnight training exercise for hostile fire and bombed a gathering of Canadian soldiers.
Four Canadians were killed in the April incident, and eight others were wounded. The Air Force has taken the unprecedented step of pursuing criminal charges against the pilots, Majs. Harry Schmidt and William Umbach, each of whom faces up to 64 years in prison.
But if the case proceeds beyond a preliminary hearing scheduled for Jan. 13, the Air Force could find many of its own practices also on trial, including its distribution of drugs that are banned in commercial aviation.
A lawyer for one of the pilots said this week that he intends to argue that the airmen’s judgments were impaired by their repeated use of amphetamines prescribed by Air Force doctors in Afghanistan—drugs, he said, that would cost the pilots their jobs if they were caught using them behind the wheel of a car instead of in the cockpit of an F-16. “Were these pilots’ perceptions affected by their use of dextroamphetamine? I don’t know,” said Charles Gittins, a Virginia attorney and former Navy flight officer representing the pilot who dropped the bomb on the Canadians. “But we’re going to present it and let the (court) decide.”
Probe Blames Pilots
A Pentagon investigation of the bombing ruled out the use of stimulants as a factor, concluding instead that the pilots were guilty of “reckless” behavior and had violated rules of engagement.
Experts say Gittins could have a hard time connecting the pilots’ fateful mistake to the influence of a relatively small dose of dextroamphetamine. And even he acknowledges that the drugs aren’t at the heart of his case. Instead, he said, the accidental bombing was the result of a series of breakdowns, including the failure of the Air Force to notify the two pilots, both members of the Illinois National Guard, that there were training exercises in the area.
But the high level of attention surrounding the unusual case already is calling attention to the Air Force’s little-known drug policies. Some say that if the Air Force were forced to change those policies, it also would change the nature of its pilots’ missions.
Many in the service see the use of stimulants as a prerequisite for the night-long fighter patrols and transoceanic bombing runs that are mainstays of the modern aerial campaign.
Use of Pills Voluntary
“They’re used because pilots are sometimes required to fly missions that exceed 10 to 12 hours,” said Col. Alvina Mitchell, an Air Force spokeswoman. “Or they’re (used for) missions that are scheduled during time when pilots would ordinarily be sleeping.”
Mitchell stressed that use of the pills is voluntary, safe and monitored closely by Air Force surgeons. The Air Force has never attributed a crash or other accident to the use of stimulants, she said. By contrast, she said, “fatigue has been cited as a contributing cause in nearly 100 mishaps.”
The military has a long and uneasy history of experimenting with stimulants as a means of enhancing the performance or endurance of its fighters. Histories of World War II indicate widespread use by German and American soldiers.
But pilots’ use of amphetamines expanded dramatically during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when pilots struggled to adapt to that conflict’s largely nocturnal schedule.
Fliers were given “go” pills to keep them awake for night-time missions, and “no go” pills, or sedatives, to help them sleep through the din and desert sun on base during the day.
Surveys show that roughly half of American fighter pilots took amphetamines during the Desert Storm campaign. Some commanders were so alarmed by many pilots’ growing addiction to the pills that they ordered their subordinates not to use them.
The drug distributed by the Air Force is commonly known by its brand name Dexedrine. It is primarily used to treat hyperactivity in children and narcolepsy, a disorder in which patients fall asleep suddenly. The drug is produced by GlaxoSmithKline, based in the United Kingdom.
The company’s literature warns that the drug has a “high potential for abuse” and “may impair the ability of the patient to engage in potentially hazardous activities such as operating machinery or vehicles.”
But experts on the use of amphetamines say the drugs are effective and generally safe when administered carefully. One likened the small doses distributed by the Air Force to cups of coffee.
The pilots each had been in Afghanistan for more than a month before the strike, according to an investigation of the incident by U.S. Central Command.
Both “had complained about the 24-hour nature of the operations,” Centcom’s report said. “Both . . . had been prescribed ‘go’ and ‘no go’ pills for use in combating fatigue and in adjusting to the new time zones in the deployed region.”
Fear of Attack
Each had taken a dose during the flight, in which Schmidt saw what he described as “fireworks” as they passed south of Kandahar.
The flashes were coming from Canadian troops engaged in a live-fire exercise at a former al Qaeda training compound. But Schmidt and Umbach believed they were under attack.
Schmidt, who taught at the Navy’s elite “Top Gun” fighter pilot school, asked permission to strafe the ground with his cannon. He was told to hold fire and stand by, but instead he moved lower. After further flashes, he said he was “rolling in in self-defense” and, with a call of “bombs away,” released a 500-pound, laser-guided munition. A moment later, a ground commander warned that “Kandahar has friendlies” and to get the F-16s “out of there.” By then it was too late.
Schmidt and Umbach both have been charged with four counts of manslaughter and eight counts of assault—the first time such charges have been leveled against pilots for actions in wartime. The hearing at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana is to determine whether they will face court-martial.