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Pilots on pills

By Miles O'Brien

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ATLANTA (CNN) -- There are a lot of days when I could use a "go-pill"...or two...or maybe a handful -- especially on those Sunday mornings when the alarm rings at four bells. No fun at all. At least the traffic is not bad on the way to work.

Those of us who work odd, long, stressful hours are often pushed to the edge of our fatigue envelopes. Doctors, police officers, firefighters and those who serve in the military are all accustomed to working without the benefit of a healthy circadian rhythm.

I suppose it should come as no surprise that many military flight crews -- facing long sorties in the wee dark hours of night -- often turn to amphetamines to stay awake and thus, alive. The 10 mg Dexedrine hits they are offered are at the center of a sad story of mistaken identity that could land two Air Force F-16 pilots in a brig for as long as 64 years.

Majs. Harry Schmidt and William Umbach face a possible court-martial for dropping a laser-guided bomb near Kandahar, Afghanistan, on April 17. The pilots thought they were under fire. Unfortunately the fire came from the muzzles of weapons carried by some Canadian troops in the midst of a "live fire" exercise. Four Canadian soldiers were killed by the laser-guided bomb the U.S. pilots mistakenly dropped.

The pilots say no one told them about the exercise. And besides, says their attorney, they were under the influence of amphetamines, "go-pills", which impaired their judgment.

What's more, their attorney says, the Air Force prevents pilots from flying some missions if they don't take the pills.

The Air Force insists the "go-pills" are voluntarily taken -- with the consent of a commander and a flight surgeon; that it is safe and has been the policy since World War II.

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