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The Air Force says that when pilots take two 5-milligram “go pills” under specified conditions, it can help them win a battle with fatigue.
The Air Force says that when pilots take two 5-milligram “go pills” under specified conditions, it can help them win a battle with fatigue. (Kent Harris / S&S)

Do Air Force pilots in Europe pop amphetamines? Not very often.

While Air Force pilots using amphetamines may conjure up images of pill-popping pilots flying missions while out of control, Air Force officials in Europe say the reality is far different.

“In day-to-day flying around USAFE, it’s almost never used,” said Col. Philip Le Kier, chief of aerospace medicine for U.S. Air Forces in Europe. “The bulk of the time they’re used is on long deployments and redeployments.”

The issue of pilots taking amphetamines, known as “go pills,” surfaced recently after an investigation began on the friendly fire case in Afghanistan. That investigation revealed that two F-16 pilots were taking Air Force-issued amphetamines when they mistook a midnight training exercise for hostile fire and bombed a group of Canadian soldiers in April. Four Canadians were killed.

USAFE officials had this to say about use of the pills:

The pills are safe and effective.They’re prescribed on a limited, controlled basis.They’re given out very rarely to pilots stationed in Europe.“There’s not any need to be using them in the missions we’re flying right now,” said Lt. Col. Diane Ritter, the aerospace medicine director for the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano Air Base, who has been stationed in Italy since May. “We just don’t have that many long flights.”

Ritter said she said she has yet to sign off on the pills’ usage at Aviano.

Le Kier said officials at USAFE headquarters have received about a dozen requests to distribute the pills in the last year. Compared with the thousands of missions that USAFE pilots undertake, that number is very small, he said.

“There’s a real high threshold as far as requesting them,” Le Kier said. “There has to be an operational need.”

What qualifies as an operational need?

One example is the 510th Fighter Squadron’s deployment to Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida in early 2002. Capt. Marc Garceau had a 13-hour flight in his F-16. He could use many of the standard Air Force techniques to fight fatigue: Get proper sleep, exercise and maintain a good diet beforehand.

But he couldn’t hand off the controls to another pilot in his single-seat aircraft. And he couldn’t get up and walk around.

Garceau said he took two pills in the mission at a time that had been determined beforehand.

“It’s like having a can of Coke,” he said of the feeling he experienced. “Or maybe a couple cans.”

Many of his fellow pilots decided they didn’t need to take them.

“Some guys can stay up longer hours,” he said. “Some guys can’t.”

Garceau said taking the pills helped take away some of the fatigue during a monotonous mission — “It’s like driving a car through Nebraska” — and helped him stay focused on the tasks at hand.

“The last couple of hours are trying for us,” he said.

And after the pills?

“I feel a little more alert,” Garceau said. “For me, it lasts a couple of hours. Then you go back to how you were feeling before.”

Garceau said it was the first time he’d taken the pills while on a mission.

But he knew how he’d feel, because all pilots are required to first take the pills on the ground.

Ritter said pilots aren’t required to take the pills at all. But if they plan on ever using them on a mission, they have to try them while they’re not flying. They document the effects they experience. Those who have unusual side effects are banned from taking them again.

“I’ve never had anyone have any adverse reactions,” she said.

Ritter has taken the pills and likens them to “a couple cups of coffee.”

Coffee itself is not really an option for most of the fighter and bomber pilots who have the option of taking the pills. Coffee is s not easy to carry in some of the smaller planes, and it tends to dehydrate instead of hydrate during flights. Getting rid of the liquid waste it generates also is problematic.

Le Kier said the Air Force hasn’t had a documented case of amphetamines contributing to any accidents. But there have been cases of the devices pilots use to relieve themselves during flights causing problems, he said.

And there have been dozens and dozens of cases of fatigue factoring in accidents.

That’s why the Air Force is offering the pills in the first place.

“It’s just one of the things we have in our arsenal to deal with the threat of fatigue,” Ritter said. “Fatigue leads to accidents.”

Le Kier said he doesn’t believe that the pills pose any health risks to pilots, either while taking them or creating an addiction.

“Not at the doses we’re giving out and the frequency we’re giving them,” he said. “Certainly, if somebody had a bottle of 100 and was obtaining them from several sources, there would be a problem.”

Air Force policy says that a unit’s flight surgeon and commander both have to sign off on the use of the go pills before they’re used. And then pilots are given four to six pills, depending on the mission. The unused pills have to be given back.

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