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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

Scripps Howard News Service October 28, 2002

Flying on 'go pills'


The Air Force calls them a "fatigue management tool." Pilots call them "go pills."

Clinically, the drug is known as dextroamphetamine, commercially sold as Dexedrine. Closely related to the highly dangerous street drug methamphetamine, it stimulates the nervous system to combat fatigue. B-1 pilots like Col. Robert Gass take the pills to help stay alert on long missions. This spring, Gass took off from Dyess Air Force Base for a 20-hour mission overseas to assist in Operation Enduring Freedom. Midway through the flight, Gass said he took a pill so he would be more alert during a complicated refueling. "During mission planning, we plan when to take these pills, and it's based on what we are doing at that time," Gass said. "When we are really just cruising at a high altitude, and the demands on our attention and aviation skills are lowest, we plan not to take it. We plan to take it just before those cockpit demands rise. So I took this about 30 minutes before the refueling operation."

The result, he said, "was a short-term boost."

"What I noticed was a heightened state of alertness," Gass said. "It was similar to drinking a couple of strong cups of coffee."

The military has been looking into ways to increase the alertness of its war fighters, something it sees as key to maintaining an advantage.

"As combat systems become more and more sophisticated and reliable, the major limiting factor for operational dominance in a conflict is the warfighter," according to a 2001 report by the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. "In short, the capability to operate effectively, without sleep, is no less than a 21st century revolution in military affairs that results in operational dominance."

Gass has flown for 18 years, and the spring mission was his first time to perform a long flight with dextroamphetamine assistance.

"I think they (the pills) are a valuable tool, so I would expect their use to become more mainstream," Gass said. "And the more we use it, the more intelligently we will be able to use it as well."

But the use of dextroamphetamines remains controversial, mostly for the pills' stated side-effects: dizziness, blurred vision, potential to become habit-forming and concealing symptoms of extreme fatigue, according to the medical site WebMD, which also warns that users of the pill should "use caution when driving, operating machinery, or performing other hazardous activities."

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency lists Dexedrine as a "schedule 2" drug, putting it under the highest level of control for a legitimate pharmaceutical, said Rogene Waite, a spokeswoman for the agency. Schedule 1 drugs are completely illegal, like heroin and marijuana. Other schedule 2 drugs include morphine and methadone.

The drug can be habit forming, too, something that worries John Pike, a defense analyst with GlobalSecurity.org, a national defense research firm in Washington.

"Dexedrine is a controlled substance. There is a reason that Starbucks doesn't sell it," said Pike. "One reason Starbucks doesn't sell it is that it's habit-forming and has a much greater potential for abuse."

Military doctors may recommend Dexedrine for flights that are 10 hours long or more, that are flown at night or that have time changes. The wing commander approves the pills and Air Combat Command is notified.

The pills are prescribed per mission.

A normal does is 10 milligrams - a small dose, according to Lt. Saje Park.

Before they get a prescription for the pills, pilots are given a dosage as a test and evaluated. Only fighter and bomber pilots can take the pills.

Gass said he didn't notice side effects. He said the pill kept him alert for about two hours and then wore off.

"It was taken in the context of a very long mission," Gass said. "I couldn't really say, if we'd landed immediately thereafter, if there'd been any noticeable effects. The effects, in any case were not extreme. We still had about 10 hours to fly, so I had no problem going to sleep when I made it to our forward operating location. "

Copyright 2002 Scripps Howard News Service