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The Drone That Fell From the Sky
Posted on Dec 21, 2011
By Nick Turse, TomDispatch
This article was originally published by TomDispatch.com.
The drone had been in the air for close to five hours before its mission crew realized that something was wrong. The oil temperature in the plane’s turbocharger, they noticed, had risen into the “cautionary” range. An hour later, it was worse, and it just kept rising as the minutes wore on. While the crew desperately ran through its “engine overheat” checklist trying to figure out the problem, the engine oil temperature, too, began skyrocketing.
By now, they had a full-blown in-flight emergency on their hands. “We still have control of the engine, but engine failure is imminent,” the pilot announced over the radio.
Almost two hours after the first signs of distress, the engine indeed failed. Traveling at 712 feet per minute, the drone clipped a fence before crashing.
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Questions about how the Iranians came to possess one of the U.S. military’s most sophisticated pieces of equipment abound. Iran first claimed that its forces shot the drone down after it “briefly violated” the country’s eastern airspace near the Afghan border. Later, the Islamic Republic insisted that the unmanned aerial vehicle had penetrated 150 miles before being felled by a sophisticated cyber-attack. And just days ago, an Iranian engineer offered a more detailed, but as yet unsubstantiated, explanation of how a hack-attack hijacked the aircraft.
For its part, the United States initially claimed that its military had lost the drone while it was on a mission in western Afghanistan. Later, unnamed officials admitted that the CIA had, in fact, been conducting a covert spy operation over Iran.
The drone crash that led this piece did occur in Afghanistan—Kandahar, to be precise—in May of this year. It went unreported at the time and involved not a sleek, bat-winged RQ-170 Sentinel, but the older, clunkier, if more famous, MQ-1 Predator, a workhorse hunter/killer machine of the Afghan war and the CIA’s drone assassination campaign in the Pakistani tribal borderlands.
A document detailing a U.S. Air Force investigation of that Predator crash, examined by TomDispatch, sheds light on the lifecycle and flaws of drones—just what can go wrong in unmanned air operations—as well as the shadowy system of bases and units scattered across the globe that keep those drones constantly in the skies as the U.S. becomes ever more reliant on remote-controlled warfare.
That report and striking new statistics obtained from the military offer insights into underexamined flaws in drone technology. They are also a reminder of the failure of journalists to move beyond awe when it comes to high-tech warfare and America’s latest wonder weapons—their curious inability to examine the stark limitations of man and machine that can send even the most advanced military technology hurtling to Earth.
According to statistics provided to TomDispatch by the Air Force, Predators have flown the lion’s share of hours in America’s drone wars. As of October 1, MQ-1’s had spent more than 1 million hours in the air, 965,000 of those in “combat,” since being introduced into military service. The newer, more heavily armed MQ-9 Reaper, by comparison, has flown 215,000 hours, 180,000 of them in combat. (The Air Force refuses to release information about the workload of the RQ-170 Sentinel.) And these numbers continue to rise. This year alone, Predators have logged 228,000 flight hours compared to 190,000 in 2010.
An analysis of official Air Force data conducted by TomDispatch indicates that its drones crashed in spectacular fashion no less than 13 times in 2011, including that May 5 crash in Kandahar.
About half of those mishaps, all resulting in the loss of an aircraft or property damage of $2 million or more, occurred in Afghanistan or in the tiny African nation of Djibouti, which serves as a base for drones involved in the U.S. secret wars in Somalia and Yemen. All but two of the incidents involved the MQ-1 model, and four of them took place in May.
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