By Craig Whitlock
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 in shorts and a T-shirt, flying by remote control from a trailer at Seychelles International Airport, committed blunder after blunder in six minutes on April 4.
He sent the unarmed MQ-9 Reaper drone off without permission from the control tower. A 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 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 a half-million passengers a year, most of them sun-seeking tourists. No one was hurt, but it was the second Reaper accident in five months — under eerily similar circumstances.
“I will be blunt here. I said, ‘I can’t believe this is happening again,’ ” an Air Force official at the scene told investigators afterward. He added: “You go, ‘How stupid are you?’ ”
The April wreck 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 by The Washington Post 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 “brains” of 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. military 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 weaponagainst al-Qaeda 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.