WASHINGTON – 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 on 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 half a 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.
An air force official at the scene told investigators afterward: “I said, ‘I can’t believe this is happening again.’ You go, ‘How stupid are you?’ “
The April crash 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 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 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. 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 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 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 technology. Mishap rates for Predators have declined to levels comparable to F-16 fighter jets at the 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 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 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 about 5 km and crashed near a residential area. The aircraft was carrying a live Hellfire missile, but the weapon 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 pilot was “inattentive” and “confused” during the landing. Because he was isolated inside a ground-control station, he didn’t notice the wind rush or high engine pitch that might have warned a pilot in a manned aircraft to slow down.
In Djibouti, the drones operate from Camp Lemonnier, a fast-growing U.S. base devoted to counterterrorism. The base is adjacent to Djibouti’s international airport and shares a single runway with passenger aircraft.
That has led to miscommunications and tensions with Djiboutian civil aviation officials. One U.S. officer told investigators last year that he often had to sternly remind fellow service members that civilians were in charge of the site. “There is a need to understand the urgency that this airport doesn’t belong to us,” he said.
In addition to the five Predator wrecks in Djibouti, the officer has witnessed three emergency landings that narrowly avoided catastrophe. “I have no illusions that this won’t happen again, whether it’s an MQ-1 or otherwise,” he said, referring to the military code name for a Predator.
Meanwhile, U.S. drone crews complained to investigators about the Djiboutian air traffic controllers, saying they speak poor English, are “short-tempered” and are uncomfortable with Predators in their airspace.
According to the crew members, the Djiboutian controllers give priority to passenger planes and order drone pilots to keep their aircraft circling overhead even when dangerously low on fuel.
In the Seychelles, the U.S. military began flying Reapers in 2009. Crews set up shop at an unmarked hangar at the international airport outside the capital, Victoria. The operation started with four Reapers that spied on pirates at sea and terrorism suspects on land in Somalia, about 1,300 km away. It was also an experiment to test new technology for operating the drones.
Normally, Reapers and Predators are flown through satellite links by pilots based in the United States, while local ground crews handle the takeoffs and landings. In the Seychelles, however, the flights didn’t require a satellite link; details of the new technology remain classified.
Starting in September 2011, records show, the air force took the unusual step of outsourcing the entire operation to a private contractor, Merlin RAMCo, based in Florida. By then, the Seychelles operation had dwindled to two Reapers after the other aircraft were redeployed.
The military drew up the surveillance missions, but Merlin RAMCo hired its own remote-control pilots, sensor operators and mechanics and dispatched them to the islands.
The arrangement was overseen at a distance by the air force’s secretive 645th Aeronautical Systems Group at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. The unit, also known as Big Safari, develops and acquires advanced weapons systems — many of them classified — for Special Operations Forces.
Merlin RAMCo supports air force missions and other government contracts with more than 80 employees at 14 locations in the U.S. and five sites overseas.
The contractor was subjected to little direct oversight in the Seychelles, records show. The air force posted two officials in the islands to coordinate flights and serve as a liaison with the contractor, but neither had experience operating drones.
Underscoring the secrecy of the operation, neither official was allowed to have a copy of Big Safari’s contract with Merlin RAMCo. “You can imagine it’s awful hard to hold somebody accountable for compliance with a contract that you physically can’t see,” one of the air force representatives told investigators.
The other liaison officer told investigators that the whole idea of outsourcing drone flights made him uneasy. “In hindsight, it appears it may not have been the best way to conduct business,” he said.
After Merlin RAMCo took charge, the two Reapers deployed to the Seychelles quickly became hobbled by problems.
In November 2011, the air force liaison officers grounded the drones after discovering that they had not received required mechanical upgrades.
Just days after they resumed flying, on Dec. 13, one of the Reapers ran into trouble. Two minutes after takeoff, the engine failed. The pilot was unable to restart it and tried to execute an emergency landing. But the aircraft, which was not armed, descended too quickly and landed too far down the runway. It bounced past a perimeter road, over a rock breakwater and sank several dozen meters offshore.
Investigators blamed the crash on an electrical short and concluded that the pilot made things worse by botching the landing.
In February, the remaining Reaper was struck by lightning while in flight. The crew was able to steer it home safely, but mechanics grounded the plane for a month to make repairs.
A few days after resuming operations, a different Merlin RAMCo pilot, with limited experience in takeoffs and landings, erred every way imaginable during the brief flight before crashing the Reaper. Contractors worked for days to fish all the parts out of the water.
The Seychelles and U.S. governments announced a suspension of drone flights afterward, but they didn’t mention that there wasn’t much choice — no intact Reapers were left on the island. U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who met with Seychelles officials a few days later, pledged a “thorough and fully transparent” investigation of the crash.
The accidents, nonetheless, stirred worry among some islanders. In a letter to the Seychelles Nation newspaper, resident James R. Mancham questioned whether civil aviation officials had “seriously examined the implications” of allowing drones to fly from Seychelles International Airport. “What guarantee do we have that never will one of these drones crash upon or collide with an approaching or departing plane or crash on the air-control tower itself?” Mancham wrote.