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The Drone That Fell From the Sky

Posted on Dec 21, 2011
Swamibu (CC-BY)

By Nick Turse, TomDispatch

This article was originally published by

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.

Land of the Lost Drones

The skies seem full of falling drones these days.  The most publicized of them made headlines when Iran announced that its military had taken possession of an advanced American remotely piloted spy aircraft, thought to be an RQ-170 Sentinel.

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. 

Numbers Game

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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drbhelthi's avatar

By drbhelthi, December 22, 2011 at 11:38 pm Link to this comment

I meant to say “for every High Value enemy combatant”  Cliff Carson

When we carefully view those who are depicted by the current U.S.
“administration” to be “high value terrorists”, - seems to me that the innocent
civilians who are murdered more nearly approaches a figure between 1,000 -
10,000.  Perhaps as high as 100,000. 

I wonder how much USTaxpayer money was wasted on the Obama Hollywood
production in Pakistan when a fill-in for Osama bin Laden was allegedly
Especially, since Osama bin Laden died of renal failure on 19 Dec 2001, after two
failed kidney transplants and two years on dialysis.

“They will believe anything we tell them - - ”  is no longer accurate.

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By Cliff Carson, December 22, 2011 at 9:53 pm Link to this comment

By Cliff Carson, December 22 at 4:39 pm

“My guess is that for every enemy combatant killed by drones in excess of 100 or more non-combatants are killed.”

I meant to say “for every High Value enemy combatant”...

The reason is that whenever a drone attack occurs the claim is that the drone stuck “militants”, etc. In other words only when the bodies of children and women, or their body parts, are displayed are there admissions of “collateral damage”.  All men killed in drone attacks are by definition of the military - militants, known in the press as terrorists.

Sadly our Military Leaders and many in our Congress need to be brought before the International Court as War Criminals.

They have brought about the deaths of well over a million innocent people in the last 30 years.

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By John Kace, December 22, 2011 at 8:38 pm Link to this comment

How long until the drones are used against us? We will be held responsible for the cia undercover governments activity as we should be. We are pathetic cockroaches and need a tax break or a hand-out. Vote Libertarian.

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By Cliff Carson, December 22, 2011 at 4:39 pm Link to this comment

I think this is a good article and forbidding.  The article does give much insight about the limitations of drones and other “Robot” warfare.

However it did fail to mention some very salient facts:

These very drones are flying the skies above the United States also, right now.  Wonder why?

There is a multitude of “Robot” weapons ( other than aircraft drones)out there being used around the world for all kinds of reasons both “good” and “bad”.  These could also be used in the US if the CIA decided to do that.  I seriously doubt that they would tell you that.

All wireless operation can be hacked and don’t think that the U S has the brightest and best scientists, because there are other nationalities who have such, it seems that the US is involved in trying to assassinate any foreign scientist that could give them worry - and as a result those countries are becoming more dangerous every passing hour to the susceptibility of the US.

China has developed the fastest operating computer in the world.  These drones not very far from the operation site need to use satellite feeds to operate.  You might recall that China a few years back blew a satellite out of orbit as a military exercise.  Without communication those “Robots” would go dark when the satellites were blown out of orbit.  And this is just one of the means to defeat robots.

Finally the drones are not nearly so surgical as presented by our “Good” guys.

Thousands of innocent civilians have been killed in these Mid-East countries.  My guess is that for every enemy combatant killed by drones in excess of 100 or more non-combatants are killed. By the way is an insurgent a bad guy when fighting to force the invaders out of his country?

And the Drone does not distinguish between enemy fighters and women and children.  I realize that our Government claims to take all precautions, etc, but that is not provable by the fact that the majority of the dead are women and children.  Envision children sitting at the breakfast table being blown to bits by a Predator bomb.  Or surviving with missing limbs or horrible burns. 

Think for a moment - which country that is having its people bombed by drones invaded the U S?

What would be our response if one of those countries started sending drones over America killing our neighbors?  Have we not become their enemy?

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moonraven's avatar

By moonraven, December 22, 2011 at 10:55 am Link to this comment

Who gives a damn?  Drones or clubs and stones—the gringos will continue to commit genocide against all non-whites on the planet until someone simply

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drbhelthi's avatar

By drbhelthi, December 22, 2011 at 2:19 am Link to this comment

The status quo of the USA and the world is readily comprehended, if one is
acquainted with the history of the CIA, Operation Paper Clip, the history of the
GHWBushSr family, and the history of the current occupant of the u. s.  presidency. 

Former CIA station chief, John Stockwell has made several videos that are revealing.

The WWII NAZI clan did not “give up.”  They transferred their HQ from Berlin to D.C., and cities in Alabama and Texas.  NASA was constructed by WWII NAZI-types and the 200 initial German (NAZI) scientists originally snuck into the US with falsified family histories and passports.  Take the alleged “Father of Space Medicine,” for example, Hubertus Strughold, MD.  He murdered innocent Jewish and other folk at the Dachau death facility with his experiments, and should have been sentenced with his colleagues at Nuremburg.  Yet, a Hubertus Strughold Day was declared in Texas and is celebrated.  Can hypocracy get worse?

Doctor Werner von Braun grew to love the U.S. and Americans so much, that months prior to his death via cancer, he charged a close acquaintance with the task of informing Americans and the world of the NAZI plan to overtake the world.  Dr. Carol Rosin has videos that provide additional detail.

One of John Stockwell´s former C.I.A. contemporaries, “Chip” Tatum, provides careful documentation.  Several years back, the remains of Chip Tatum washed onto the shore of a Caribbean beach.  The NAZI C.I.A. machine has murdered hundreds of former insiders, for having revealed inside information.  And threatened thousands more with death and family mayhem.

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By diamond, December 21, 2011 at 11:54 pm Link to this comment

What you need to understand about the drone war is that it is the CIA’s war. They own the drones and they decide when they fly. Now just stop and think about what the CIA did in Vietnam. Think about what they did in Iraq and Afghanistan. Are you happy to have the CIA controlling these drones? It conjures up the specter of a future where these endless wars, fought for profit, will be run by covert operatives not answerable to anyone, and will be completely remote controlled. What the ‘collateral murder’ video showed was the extent to which that is already happening and that is what a lot of people found so shocking about that video. Many people simply don’t understand that the CIA has become a law unto itself, an organization that government fears and does not control.

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By Wingnut, December 21, 2011 at 5:23 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I think the drones, technologically speaking, are amazing.  Redundant flight control systems, massive fuel tanks, satellite uplink/downlink telemetry, weather resistance, weapons systems, its just amazing that the program is plausible whatsoever.  And I bet there’s some autonomy involved too, or at least planned.  These drones might look for suspicious activity all on their own, and even try to fly home if contact is lost.  And I bet some all-solar-powered versions have at least been considered.  Of course, how would I know?  While I was in the Air Force, there was a general rumor that only the lower 50% of the tech… was known about.  In other words, black ops has just as much tech hidden from ALL VIEW… as what was in-view.

I think we’ll see drones, guided missiles, and smart-bullet tech… merge to a degree, in the future.  I don’t like to think about it, so I’ll quit right here and now.  smile

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A Khokar's avatar

By A Khokar, December 21, 2011 at 3:13 pm Link to this comment

There is no doubt US has upper hand in drones technology and is free to carry out strikes under self proclaimed CIA’s judge-jury-executioner assassination program in the lands which may offer less or no resistance to drone operation for lack of their ability or other constraints like in Pakistan to counter drone attacks.

But I don’t think that those days are too far off when these defenceless countries would also be having this technology in hand and places like Creech air base in Nevada will be equally be surveiled and attacked by the other adversaries.

I mean they don’t have to reinvent the wheel Simple hacking may bring down the drone to add to their inventory like Iranians they did

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A Khokar's avatar

By A Khokar, December 21, 2011 at 3:12 pm Link to this comment

There is no doubt US got an upper hand in drones technology and is free to carry out strikes under self proclaimed ‘CIA’s judge-jury-executioner assassination program’ in the lands which may offer less or no resistance to drone operation for lack of their ability or other constraints like in Pakistan to counter drone attacks.

But I don’t think that those days are too far off when these defenceless countries would also be having this technology in hand and places like Creech air base in Nevada will be equally be surveiled and attacked by the adversaries.

I mean they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Simple hacking may bring down the drone to add to their inventory like Iranians they did

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By Litl Bludot, December 21, 2011 at 2:50 pm Link to this comment

It’s puzzling to have an article mix supposed facts with fiction. Just a quick read provides a few propaganda nuggets, among them:
The Iranians have
shown the drone in video and pictures. It’s pristine condition proves that it did not
“crash”. So why does the author use that word? What’s the story in this article?

He also states that the war in Libya was “won” by drones. WTF? Won?

So again, what’s this article about?

Truthdig is becoming more curious every day.

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drbhelthi's avatar

By drbhelthi, December 21, 2011 at 1:30 pm Link to this comment

Predictably, more drones will be lost due to “warping and deforming,” and the overtaking of control of the drones by cyber attacks of the indigenous folk whose airspace is being violated.  Many of which folk have clearly indicated that they do not care for the Obama/Clinton version of “democracy.”  As have many Americans.

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By gerard, December 21, 2011 at 1:02 pm Link to this comment

After the crash of one drone mentioned in the article, an investigation revealed that “Significant overheating had, it was discovered, warped and deformed the machinery. “
  I would suggest at this point that “significant overheating” of war-prone and profits-driven pressures are driving human “drones” in the MIC, and that the “machinery” of war-promotion is “warped and deformed.”

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