More than 400 large U.S. military drones have crashed in major accidents around the world since 2001, a record of calamity that exposes the potential dangers of throwing open American skies to drone traffic, according to a year-long Washington Post investigation.
Since the outbreak of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, military drones have malfunctioned in myriad ways, plummeting from the sky because of mechanical breakdowns, human error, bad weather and other reasons, according to more than 50,000 pages of accident investigation reports and other records obtained by The Post under the Freedom of Information Act.
The documents obtained by The Post detail scores of previously unreported crashes involving remotely controlled aircraft, challenging the federal government’s assurances that drones will be able to fly safely over populated areas and in the same airspace as passenger planes.
Military drones have slammed into homes, farms, runways, highways, waterways and, in one case, an Air Force C-130 Hercules transport plane in midair. No one has died in a drone accident, but the documents show that many catastrophes have been narrowly averted, often by a few feet, or a few seconds, or pure luck.
“All I saw were tents, and I was afraid that I had killed someone,” Air Force Maj. Richard Wageman told investigators after an accident in November 2008, when he lost control of a Predator that plowed into a U.S. base in Afghanistan. “I felt numb, and I am certain that a few cuss words came out of my mouth.”
Investigators were unable to pinpoint a definitive cause for the accident but said wind and an aggressive turn by the pilot were factors. Wageman did not respond to a request for comment through an Air Force spokeswoman.
Several military drones have simply disappeared while at cruising altitudes, never to be seen again. In September 2009, an armed Reaper drone, with a 66-foot wingspan, flew on the loose across Afghanistan after its handlers lost control of the aircraft. U.S. fighter jets shot it down as it neared Tajikistan.
The documents describe a multitude of costly mistakes by remote-control pilots. A $3.8 million Predator carrying a Hellfire missile cratered near Kandahar in January 2010 because the pilot did not realize she had been flying the aircraft upside-down. Later that year, another armed Predator crashed nearby after the pilot did not notice he had squeezed the wrong red button on his joystick, putting the plane into a spin.
While most of the malfunctioning aircraft have perished in combat zones, dozens have been destroyed in the United States during test and training flights that have gone awry.
In April, a 375-pound Army drone crashed next to an elementary-school playground in Pennsylvania, just a few minutes after students went home for the day. In Upstate New York, the Air Force still cannot find a Reaper that has been missing since November, when it plunged into Lake Ontario. In June 2012, a Navy RQ-4 surveillance drone with a wingspan as wide as a Boeing 757′s nose-dived into Maryland’s Eastern Shore, igniting a wildfire.
Defense Department officials said they are confident in the reliability of their drones. Most of the crashes occurred in war, they emphasized, under harsh conditions unlikely to be replicated in the United States.
Military statistics show the vast majority of flights go smoothly and that mishap rates have steadily declined over the past decade. Officials acknowledge, however, that drones will never be as safe as commercial jetliners.
“Flying is inherently a dangerous activity. You don’t have to look very far, unfortunately, to see examples of that,” said Dyke Weatherington, director of unmanned warfare for the Pentagon. “I can look you square in the eye and say, absolutely, the [Defense Department] has got an exceptional safety record on this and we’re getting better every day.”
The Post’s analysis of accident records, however, shows that the military and drone manufacturers have yet to overcome some fundamental safety hurdles:
- A limited ability to detect and avoid trouble. Cameras and high-tech sensors on a drone cannot fully replace a pilot’s eyes and ears and nose in the cockpit. Most remotely controlled planes are not equipped with radar or anti-collision systems designed to prevent midair disasters.
- Pilot error. Despite popular perceptions, flying a drone is much trickier than playing a video game. The Air Force licenses its drone pilots and trains them constantly, but mistakes are still common, particularly during landings. In four cases over a three-year period, Air Force pilots committed errors so egregious that they were investigated for suspected dereliction of duty.
- Persistent mechanical defects. Some common drone models were designed without backup safety features and rushed to war without the benefit of years of testing. Many accidents were triggered by basic electrical malfunctions; others were caused by bad weather. Military personnel blamed some mishaps on inexplicable problems. The crews of two doomed Predators that crashed in 2008 and 2009 told investigators that their respective planes had been “possessed” and plagued by “demons.”
- Unreliable communications links. Drones are dependent on wireless transmissions to relay commands and navigational information, usually via satellite. Those connections can be fragile. Records show that links were disrupted or lost in more than a quarter of the worst crashes.
Among the models that crashed most often is the MQ-1 Predator, the Air Force drone manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, of San Diego. Almost half the Predators bought by the Air Force have been involved in a major accident, according to purchasing and safety data.
Frank W. Pace, president of aircraft systems for General Atomics, the leading producer of large military drones, said the Predator has exceeded expectations for reliability. It was designed to be lightweight and inexpensive, costing less than $4 million apiece. During the early years of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he said, nobody expected the Predator to last very long.
“It was more of a mind-set that you were going to get shot down or have other losses, so you don’t want to put all this money into a redundant system,” Pace said, referring to backup systems designed to kick in when a failure occurs.
He emphasized that none of the Predator accidents have been fatal.
“We’ve never reported a loss of life,” he said, “so we’re doing pretty good.”
Accidents span globeDrones have revolutionized warfare. Now they are poised to revolutionize civil aviation. Under the law passed by Congress, the Federal Aviation Administration is scheduled to issue rules by September 2015 that will begin the widespread integration of drones into civilian airspace.
Pent-up demand to buy and fly remotely controlled aircraft is enormous. Law enforcement agencies, which already own a small number of camera-equipped drones, are projected to purchase thousands more; police departments covet them as an inexpensive tool to provide bird’s-eye surveillance for up to 24 hours straight.
Businesses see profitable possibilities for drones, to tend crops, move cargo, inspect real estate or film Hollywood movies. Journalists have applied for drone licenses to cover the news. Amazon.com chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos wants his company to use autonomous drones to deliver small packages to customers’ doorsteps. (Bezos also owns The Post.)
The military owns about 10,000 drones, from one-pound Wasps and four-pound Ravens to one-ton Predators and 15-ton Global Hawks. By 2017, the armed forces plan to fly drones from at least 110 bases in 39 states, plus Guam and Puerto Rico.
The drone industry, which lobbied Congress to pass the new law, predicts $82 billion in economic benefits and 100,000 new jobs by 2025.
Public opposition has centered on civil-liberties concerns, such as the morality and legality of using drones to spy on people in their back yards. There has been scant scrutiny of the safety record of remotely controlled aircraft. A report released June 5 by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that there were “serious unanswered questions” about how to safely integrate civilian drones into the national airspace, calling it a “critical, crosscutting challenge.”
Nobody has more experience with drones than the U.S. military, which has logged more than 4 million flight hours. But the Defense Department tightly guards the particulars of its drone operations, including how, when and where most accidents occur.
The Post filed more than two dozen Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps. Responding intermittently over the course of a year, the military released investigative files and other records that collectively identified 418 major drone crashes around the world between September 2001 and the end of last year.
That figure is almost equivalent to the number of major crashes incurred by the Air Force’s fleet of fighter jets and attack planes during the same period, even though the drones flew far fewer missions and hours, according to Air Force safety statistics.
The military divided the major accidents into two categories of severity, based on the amount of damage inflicted to the aircraft or other property. (There are three other categories for more minor accidents.)
According to the records, 194 drones fell into the first category — Class A accidents that destroyed the aircraft or caused, under current standards, at least $2 million in damage.
Slightly more than half of those accidents occurred in Afghanistan and Iraq. Almost a quarter happened in the United States. (Washington Post)