Top Thumb: Caught Embedded at Drone Operators' HQ

by Sid Feddema

On March 3, 2009, the United States Air Force established an elite school for the top one percent of its drone operators. Its purpose was to teach the art of drone combat and to insure that the handful of men and women who graduated were the best drone operators in the world. Today, the USAF calls it Drone Combat School. But the drone operators call it… Top Thumb.

“I’m sorry sir, but we’re entering a restricted area. We’ll have to de-vision you for a few moments if that’s ok?” At my nod, the officer slips a USAF-branded visitor hood over my head, and our golf buggy trundles off across the tarmac of the gigantic American air base in Ramstein, southwest Germany.

Ramstein is the headquarters of the US Air Force in Europe and the secretive center of US drone operations worldwide. The US drone program has grown so rapidly in the last decade that the operations center here has had to expand like a shockwave. It’s now a giddying labyrinth ten stories deep.

Today I’m being led down into the very depths of this cutting-edge concrete catacomb, to visit the elite USAF academy for UAV operators: Drone Combat School. It’s here, deep underground, that I’m going to be spending the next two days: living side-by-side with instructors and recruits. The first journalist ever to witness what goes on in the world’s most prestigious and intensive training scheme for drone operators.

When we finally reach level ten, the elevator doors swoosh open, the hood is whisked from my head, and there, standing handsomely in the lobby in mirrored sunglasses, is the commanding officer of the Drone Combat School: legendary UAV controller, Colonel Chad Jackson — call sign ‘Joystick.’

He ushers me grandly into his facility. “Right here is where we train people to supervize the best drones in the world. Now, follow me. Joystick has the lead.” He turns and takes four brisk paces across the lobby to a digital sign mounted on the wall. A list of names is scrolling slowly across the display. “Take a good look. This is what every recruit is fighting for. The finest drone operator from every intake is named ‘Top Thumb.’ He gets his name immortalized in orange LED lights up to a maximum of 200 digits, at which point the oldest name is deleted.” Joystick straightens and salutes the scrolling sign. I can’t see behind his mirror shades, but I suspect that his eyes are damp with military pride.

Firm but fair, Jackson runs the Ramstein drone school with a rod of iron. Recruits know that if they’re caught texting or surfing the internet during a mission, they risk being told to keep a closer eye on the console. Not everyone, Jackson admits, can handle the pressure. “Knowing that every single action of your drone is being carried out by an intelligent onboard flight system… it can get to you.”

The recent shift from human-operated to autonomous AI drone systems means that recruits now face a whole spectrum of new psychological challenges. “Hours and hours of doing nothing, punctuated by graphic images of a group of people being shredded by a missile. Then most times the drone will circle until the emergency services and other terrorists turn up, then hit them again. We call it a ‘double tap.’ I’m not sure what the drones call it. They talk to each other in encrypted machine code. Maybe they’re saying ‘Yeah, woooo!’ or something. I don’t know.”

Joystick shrugs and checks his watch. It’s getting late. “You probably want to meet the recruits right away, but you’ve had a long trip. You should relax. Finger Bang…?”

Before I can accept the Colonel’s generous offer, a voice behind me pipes up. “Yes sir?”

“This is Captain Amos Higashi, call sign ‘Finger Bang.’ One of our very best instructors. He’ll show you to the locker room where you can shower up.”

Twenty minutes later, I’m in a towel, hitched low round my hips, one knee up on the bench so I can air-dry. A confident hand with a twitchy thumb is thrust towards me in greeting. “Hey, newcomer. I’m Michael Schwenk. Call sign, ‘Dangerous.’ You want to meet the guys?” I tell him I’d love to. “Just let me finish up,” says Dangerous, grinning impishly — and with lightning speed his thumb darts at my hip, whipping away my towel. In his practised hands, the towel becomes a crazy blur, rubbing and sliding at impossible angles through crevices I never knew existed. One wrong twist and he could lose everything.

“That’s the gutsiest drying I ever saw,” I tell Schwenk. But from the other side of the locker room comes a bitter scoff of disagreement. Stepping from the steam is a fellow dronesman, his right fist pumping steadily at a steel hand exerciser which squeaks ominously. Dangerous straightens up to his full five foot one inch. “What’s your problem, Wolfman?”

“You’re everyone’s problem. The way you dry is the way you fly.”

“Naked?”

“It’s your attitude. I’ve seen how you watch your drone carry out its pre-programmed missions. You’re unsafe. Your ego is running up credit card debt that your body can’t pay off.” Dangerous juts his chin up until it almost reaches Wolfman’s sternum, and the two naked rivals press their fronts together, angrily. After about two minutes of pressing and jostling, their breathing becomes ragged and they fall to the linoleum, still locked together, neither man wanting to admit defeat. Wolfman is the first to speak. “Your drone can be my drone’s wing-drone any time,” he murmurs in Schwenk’s ear, then slinks away into the the locker room humidity. Dangerous picks himself up, and towels himself off, but more slowly this time.

“That was Wolfman. Got his name in combat in Afghanistan. He flies a UAV like a wolf.” Is that because he hunts in a pack? Dangerous shakes his head. “It’s because he kills a lot of goats.” He turns towards the other recruits, all naked, who’d formed a quiet circle around the struggle, and introduces me to ‘Catnap,’ ‘Blink Rate’ and his best friend, ’Swivel’ — so called because he prefers to sit on a swivel chair when he’s watching his drone fly. “The things he can do on a chair…” says Dangerous. “I’ve seen him swivel clockwise, anticlockwise, and right back the other way.”

I also get to meet ‘Camel’ — “he’s got the most incredible bladder you’ve ever seen.” And lastly I’m introduced to ‘Female.’ An unusual call sign, I say. How did you get it? Female shrugs. “From being a female, I think.” She finishes toweling herself off, and everyone heads to the on-site bar, Das Booze, for a beer. We get to talking about the darker side of the drone war.

“You never forget your first kill,” says Blink Rate, sipping somberly at his pilsner. “It’s hard not to feel in some way responsible when you watch your drone decide to blow someone up.” Catnap agrees. “If I wasn’t certain that the drone always knows whether a target is hostile or not, I’d be worried that some of the peasants I’ve watched it kill weren’t actually terrorists. But they obviously were, because otherwise they wouldn’t have been blown up.”

“It’s the same with goats,” says Wolfman. “The drone seems to know which goats are terrorists and which ones are just goats.” I ask Wolfman how the drone can tell the difference between a hostile goat and a non-combatant goat. “It’s a smart drone, you see? It just knows,” explains Wolfman.

So how exactly do they know what their drone has destroyed? “We get an email alert,” says Camel. “It tells us how many hostiles we’ve taken out. One time I neutralized eighty-five with a single missile. That’ll teach them to hide in a school.”

Suddenly, with a fun-loving smirk, Dangerous springs to his feet. “I’ve had enough drone chat. Let’s have some fun. Who’s with me?” He slides over to the upright piano in the corner of Das Booze. “Anyone know how to play 99 Red Balloons?!” But no one does so we finish our drinks and go to bed.

Next day, I discover that Female is Kaylie Poundstone, an experienced Aerial Geographist from the Pentagon. What Poundstone doesn’t know about things seen from 30,000 feet up isn’t worth knowing. I sit in on her class on Topographical Analysis.

“What’s this?” she asks, pointing at a recon photo of Pakistani hill country. Schwenk is the first to answer. “It’s a hill.” Poundstone is visibly shaken by Schwenk’s arrogance. “How do you know?” Dangerous smiles. “I took a guess.” Female adjusts her bra angrily. “You’re not paid to guess. You’re paid to watch your drone guess. Is that clear?” His ego badly bruised, Dangerous storms out of the classroom, unfolds a kick scooter, and scoots up and down the corridors for few minutes to blow off steam.

These young recruits watch hard and play hard. Most weekends they’ll strip to their jeans and cut loose round the ping pong table, where they’ve rigged up a pair of robots to play against each other. There’s a strict “no chest bumps” rule after Ken Loggins (call sign “Login”) cracked two ribs celebrating a 300 stroke rally. After about 40 hours most games are declared a draw.

On my final morning at Top Thumb I’m permitted to attend a tactical seminar from Colonel ‘Joystick’ Jackson. He marches crisply to the front of the class and casts a steely glance about the room. “Let’s go over the rules of engagement.”

There’s a chuckle from the front row. It’s from Dangerous. Joystick raises a wiry eyebrow. “You got a problem with rules, son?”

“Not if they don’t mind being broken, sir,” says Dangerous, and turns to Swivel for a high-five, but Swivel declines to high-five back, not willing to risk a finger injury.

“I knew a UAV operator like you once,” says Colonel Jackson. “I flew model aircraft with him, back in the eighties. You probably know his name. Emery Schwenk.”

Dangerous clenches and then unclenches his jaw. “You knew my father?”

Joystick nods. “The best damn hobbyist I ever saw fly. You’re a lot like he was. Hot-headed. Unpredictable. He flew a radio-controlled 2-stroke Airknocker, shark-face paint job, a real beaut. Until one day…” Colonel Jackson takes off his sunglasses and stares at the wall. A dark memory haunts his taut features.

Schwenk stands to attention, his voice hoarse with emotion. “He never told me what happened to his Airknocker, sir.”

“Sit down, recruit, and I’ll tell you.” Dangerous takes a seat, and Joystick gives a wry smile. “He was a damn fool. Knew the rules. Didn’t give a damn. He decided to buzz the town pond. Came in low from the west, sun behind him. His 2-stroke must have backfired, spooked the waterfowl, they took to the air. I’ve never seen anything like it. Birds everywhere. He didn’t stand a chance. His Airknocker went straight into a goose. He never flew again.” Colonel Jackson shakes his head sadly. “Nor did the goose.”

I catch up with Dangerous after the seminar. He’s in the locker room, stripped down to a pair of recklessly tight underpants, staring at himself in the mirror. “Is this why I fly drones like I do? Because my father killed a goose with a model airplane?”

I tell him it probably is, and he finger-combs water through his hair for a few minutes to help him think. “I just want my drone to be the best,” he says. I tell him I thought all the drones were pretty much identical, and that seems to calm him. “Tell me one thing,” he says, and his cool eyes bore into mine. “And be honest. Are these underpants cutting the circulation off to my legs? Is that why my feet are numb?” I tell him he might want to think about going up a size, and leave.

I can see that the pressure on these recruits is immense. They’re expected to sit watching a drone carry out a pre-determined mission, for anything up to three hours at a time. “It’s the third hour that’s the toughest,” Swivel tells me. “Your mind starts wandering. You’re looking out of the window, or settling down for a nap, and then suddenly your console will beep for some reason and you remember you’re nominally in control of a 16 million dollar UAV.”

He’s interrupted by a siren, and flashing amber light. Dangerous comes skidding round the corridor on his kick scooter. “Emergency!” he yells. “Everyone to the drone operations room!”

Joystick is already there, pulling on his flight suit for no reason. “This is not a drill! Our drones have been launched into a combat formation over the Pakistan/Afghanistan border. Everyone grab a console.” He points at me. “You too.”

I find myself thrust down in front of a massive monitor between Swivel and Dangerous. Schwenk can see I’m nervous. “It’ll be ok, just do what I do.” And he turns and watches the screen in front of him. I do my best to copy him, but the images in front of me seem to swirl and throb, as my Reaper banks sharply to the left and then straightens.

“Easy buddy,” says Dangerous. “Watch your altitude.”

“You mean I need to tell my drone to go higher?”

“No, just watch the altitude it’s interesting to see the number go up and down”.

Joystick puts a hand on my shoulder. “You’re doing great, son. You know, the way that drone’s flying itself, it reminds me a little of someone I used to fly with. Emery Schwenk.” He smiles across at Dangerous who smiles back, still in his underpants. It’s a healing moment for all of us. I turn back to my monitor to see that my drone has just blown up a biscuit factory, where it must have known many terrorists were hiding.

“Nice shot,” says Joystick, “now head for home.” And right on cue, my MQ-9 Reaper drone turns and navigates itself back to a US aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, where human engineers will watch robots service it.

When it’s time for me to leave, I turn at the elevator door and salute my new friends. Over the head of Michael Schwenk I notice a Latin motto, laser-printed onto a strip of wood and glued to the lobby wall: si auditis admonitiem, possibile difficultas est. I ask the Colonel what it means. He smiles. “That’s the motto of Top Thumb combat school: If you hear an alarm, there may be a problem.” And with that, Finger Bang slips a cotton hood over my head and I’m led upwards into the sunlight.


Written by Charlie Skelton