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Drone crashes increase at civilian airports

The U.S. Air Force drone, on a classified spy mission over the Indian Ocean, was destined for disaster from the start.

An inexperienced military contractor, operating by remote control in shorts and a T-shirt from a trailer at Seychelles International Airport, committed blunder after blunder during a six-minute span April 4.

The pilot of the unarmed MQ-9 Reaper drone took off without permission from the control tower. One minute later, he yanked the wrong lever at his console, killing the engine without realizing why.

As he tried to make an emergency landing, he forgot to put down the wheels. The $8.9 million aircraft belly-flopped on the runway, bounced and then plunged into the tropical waters at the airport’s edge, according to a previously undisclosed Air Force accident investigation report.

The drone crashed at a civilian airport that serves a half-million passengers a year, most of them sun-seeking tourists. No one was hurt, but it was the second Reaper accident there in five months – under eerily similar circumstances.

“I will be blunt here,” an Air Force official at the scene told investigators afterward. “I said, ‘I can’t believe this is happening again.’ ” He added: “You go, ‘How stupid are you?’ ”

The April wreck was the latest in a rash of U.S. military drone crashes at overseas civilian airports in the past two years. The accidents reinforce concerns about the risks of flying the robot aircraft outside war zones, including in the United States.

A review of thousands of pages of unclassified Air Force investigation reports, obtained by the Washington Post under public-records requests, shows that drones flying from civilian airports have been plagued by setbacks.

Among the problems repeatedly cited are pilot error, mechanical failure, software bugs in the “brains” of the aircraft and poor coordination with civilian air-traffic controllers.

On Jan. 14, 2011, a Predator drone crashed off the Horn of Africa while trying to return to an international airport next to a U.S. military base in Djibouti. It was the first known accident involving a Predator or Reaper drone near a civilian airport. Predators and Reapers can carry satellite-guided missiles and have become the Obama administration’s primary weapon against al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.

Since then, at least six more Predators and Reapers have crashed in the vicinity of civilian airports overseas, including other instances in which contractors were at the controls.

The mishaps have become more common at a time when the Pentagon and domestic law-enforcement agencies are pressing the Federal Aviation Administration to open U.S. civil airspace to surveillance drones.

The FAA permits drone flights only in rare cases, citing the risk of midair collisions. The Defense Department can fly Predators and Reapers on training and testing missions in restricted U.S. airspace near military bases.

The pressure to fly drones in the same skies as passenger planes will only increase as the war in Afghanistan winds down and the military and CIA redeploy their growing fleets of Predators and Reapers. Last year, the military began flying unarmed Reapers from a civilian airport in Ethiopia to spy in next-door Somalia.

In a Nov. 20 speech in Washington, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the Pentagon would expand its use of the unmanned attack planes “outside declared combat zones” as it pursues al-Qaida supporters in Africa and the Middle East.

“These enhanced capabilities will enable us to be more flexible and agile against a threat that has grown more diffuse,” Panetta said.

The Air Force says that its drones are safe and that crash rates have fallen as the military fine-tunes the new technology. Mishap rates for Predators have declined to levels comparable to F-16 fighter jets at same stage in their development, according to the Air Force Safety Center at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico.

In Djibouti, five Predators have crashed since the Air Force began ramping up drone operations there to combat terrorist groups in nearby Yemen and Somalia.

Many of the mechanical breakdowns have been peculiar to drones.

On May 7, 2011, an armed Predator suffered an electrical malfunction that sent it into a death spiral about a mile offshore from Djibouti City, the capital, which has about 600,000 residents. “I’m just glad we landed it in the ocean and not someplace else,” a crew member told investigators.

Ten days later, another Predator missed the runway by nearly three miles and crashed near a residential area. The aircraft was carrying a live Hellfire missile, but it did not detonate and no one was injured.

Another close call came March 15, 2011. An armed Predator came in too steep and fast for landing, overshot the runway and slammed into a fence.

Investigators attributed that accident to a melted throttle part, but they also blamed pilot error. They said the remote-control pilot was “inattentive” and “confused” during the landing. The report added, he didn’t notice the wind rush or high engine pitch that might have warned a manned pilot to slow down.

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