A recent report in the national daily The Times of India (TOI) arrested my attention. Indian Air Force pilots are popping ‘smart pills’ to beat fatigue and sleep. A quick reading of the report revealed that this was an open secret, and the ritual has been around for a couple of years now. All this while, I was quite naive to believe that it was the morale and the adrenalin that kept our air-borne soldiers going.
Quoting unnamed senior IAS officers, the news report has given a low down on how IAF pilots take ‘Go Pill’ Modafinil to keep them awake on rigorous and lengthy combat exercises. Once the pilots are done with the drill, they are advised to take the ‘No Go pill’ Zolpidem that eases the brain and lets a person ‘sleep well’.
According to the report, Modafinil has been used in IAF’s annual drill ‘Livewire’ held from October 31 to November 8. Also called the ‘Upper’, because it keeps a person ‘up and awake’, Modafinil became popular during the Iraq War and is now increasingly used by a lot of military forces across the globe. The drug alters neurotransmitters or the natural chemicals which transmit signals between cells in the brain.
A TOI report from last year states that 20 IAF fighter plane crashes occurred in five years, from 2010-2015. The high crash rate can be attributed to ageing planes. The drill should lessen the number of crashes; but on the contrary, more and more airmen have lost their lives in such accidents.
Wing commander SS Birdi, the IAF spokesperson, had attributed Human Error (HE) as one of the many reasons for the multiple crashes. In 2015, Birdi had said, “The IAF has constituted a special committee to investigate reasons behind the accidents and accordingly, make changes in pilots’ training.” In light of the recent report, it seems the “changes in pilot’s training” also included administering a good dose of ‘Go pill’ to minimise accidents.
At a very simple level, Modafinil seems like a cost-cutting measure to diminish crash deaths of pilots because India is not able to buy new-age fighter planes. But like any other drug, prolonged use of this pill can have long-term health issues too. Zolpidem, the ‘No go’ pill eases an insomniac to go to bed. But users of this drug say it triggers off sadness, and a sense of disorientation, much like the wearing off an alcohol hangover.
Pilots using both the drugs are in a perpetual loop of sleep and wakefulness; and this sounds more like a drug abuse rather than an innocent performance enhancer/pacifier. Modafinil can damage the memory because by tricking our body to remain awake, we are stopping our brain from consolidating our memories during sleep.
In its nearsightedness of producing alert soldiers, the IAF might be overlooking the long-term health hazard that pilots might face. The news only reiterates the fact that no matter how elite an establishment is, we are all humans and need our bodily comfort.