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Air Guard's drone crash caused by multiple malfunctions

Ryan Delaney
WRVO News File Photo

Multiple communication and navigation failures on 174th Air National Guard Attack Wing's MQ-9 Reaper unmanned drone flying over central New York last November caused it to crash in Lake Ontario.

An Air Force accident review board released its report Tuesday on what caused the Nov. 12, 2013 crash of a military drone 12 miles north of Oswego into the lake while it was on a training flight. It's one of two crash reports, but the only one that will be made public.

A "series of system malfunctions" followed by a sharp turn and unrecoverable flat spin while the unmanned aerial system, or UAS as the military refers to drones, was on autopilot is what doomed the aircraft.

According to the Air Force report, pilots noticed a series of warnings during the training flight indicating a partial loss of communications and navigation ability. Operators tried to return the drone to Wheeler-sack Army Airfield at Fort Drum when, the report says, complete communication was lost.

When communications are lost, drones are programmed to enter into a pre-determined autopilot path back to base, which the report says the MQ-9 did. It came up 35 miles short.

The report says the drone then further lost its GPS and internal navigation abilities.

"A few seconds later, the aircraft began an autopilot turn to the right that inverted the aircraft and eventually led to an unrecoverable flat spin," the report says. "Shortly thereafter, the MQ-9 impacted Lake Ontario and was destroyed."

Credit 174th Attack Wing / Air National Guard
Air National Guard
Approximate location of the MQ-9 drone crash.

Only pieces of the drone were recovered, washed up on shore, but the exact impact site was never determined. It was a $10.6 million aircraft.

No one was injured in the crash and no property was damaged. The MQ-9 has a wing span of 66 feet and weighs about 8,000 pounds.

The 174th operates the MQ-9 from Hancock Airfield in Syracuse for both training and overseas missions. Training flights take off from Fort Drum.

Operations at Hancock Airfield were suspended for a number of days following the crash. Commanders of the 174th Attack Wing have insisted the MQ-9 and their operations are safe.

Drones crash at a much higher rate than manned military aircraft.

The 174th has referred questions to the Air Force's Air Combat Command division, which conducted the accident investigation. An interview request with Air Combat Command is pending.