Record number of Air Force drone crashes has experts searching for answers

In this Nov. 3, 2015, photo, a Predator drone owned by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection sits on the tarmac awaiting takeoff from the agency's Grand Forks Air Force Base operations in North Dakota. The unmanned aircraft is about the size of a business jet and can fly for at least 20 hours, but experienced pilots say it's a difficult to plane to land. (AP Photos/Dave Kolpack)

Now more than ever, the Air Force needs drones for counterterrorism missions in multiple war zones around the world.

But a “mysterious surge in mishaps” in the Air Force’s newest “hunter killer” has engineers working overtime, to find the root of the problem.

The Reaper — which is the Pentagon’s weapon of choice for conducting surveillance and airstrikes against ISIS and other terrorist organizations– has been beset by an outbreak of sudden electrical failures. In 2015, the mishap rate – number of major crashes per 100,000 hours flown– more than doubled compared to 2014.

According to a Washington Post report, investigators have traced the problem to a faulty starter-generator, but have been “unable to pinpoint why it goes haywire or devise a permanent fix.”

While engineers still can’t figure out why the starter-generators are failing, pilots are many times forced to ditch the drones in remote areas, when there’s a failure and the aircraft can’t make it back to the base. The Reaper carries an emergency battery backup system, however the batteries last only for about an hour.

“Once the battery’s gone, the airplane goes stupid and you lose it,” said Col. Brandon Baker, chief of the Air Force’s remotely piloted aircraft capabilities division. “Quite frankly, we don’t have the root cause ironed out just yet.”

The program manager for the Air Force’s Reaper fleet filed a report with the Pentagon, back in March, noting the “dramatic increase” in starter-generator failures since 2013.

In July, the Air Force began installing second generators into the Reapers to give the drone 10 extra hours of electricity in the event the first generator fails. So far, 47 of the 60 Reapers in the Air Force’s fleet, that carry the “buggy starter-generators” have been equipped with new backups.

Since 2001, U.S. military drones have been involved in more than 400 major accidents around the globe. In the worst annual toll ever — 20 large Air Force drones were destroyed or “sustained at least $2 million in damage” in accidents last year — according to a Washington Post investigation.

In this Nov. 3, 2015, photo, Max Raterman, left, who directs the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations at Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D, monitors work in the operations center. Contract employee Jeff Deem, right, is following an unmanned flight that originated at the center. The CBP flies drones out of three U.S. cities. (AP Photo/Dave Kolpack)
In this Nov. 3, 2015, photo, Max Raterman, left, who directs the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations at Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D, monitors work in the operations center. Contract employee Jeff Deem, right, is following an unmanned flight that originated at the center. The CBP flies drones out of three U.S. cities. (AP Photo/Dave Kolpack)

The Pentagon has mostly kept details of these crashes secret. According to the Post report, the Defense Dept. did not publicly report “half of the 20 Reaper and Predator accidents last year.” The Predator is the other primary drone model and is considered the “most effective weapon in the campaign against global jihadists,” according to intelligence officials. It had 10 major accidents last year.

The camera from a Predator drone, flown out of Balad Air Base in Iraq, caught one of those crashes in action. The video shows that 30 minutes into the flight an oil leak sparked a fire..Pilots brought down the drone in the desert, where it came apart and crashed to the ground.. An Army infantry unit recovered the wreckage, taking some of the sensitive electronics. They blew up the rest. The accident received little media coverage. It cost $4.3 million to replace the drone.

The Air Force has 140 Predators left and plans to retire them by 2018. The Reaper, which can fly twice as far and carry more bombs and missiles, will replace it.

In another setback, the Air Force had to cut drone missions by 8% last year due to the “acute shortage” of pilots, who complain about being overworked. The service recently announced it would give pilots up to $125, 000 in retention bonuses.

The Air Force’s demand for drone missions increased in recent years, as counter-terrorism operations throughout North Africa and the Middle East became crucial to our national security. Field commanders in both these regions told Congress that the Pentagon has provided “less than one-quarter of the drones, other aircraft and satellites that they need for reconnaissance and surveillance missions.”

The Army also operates its own fleet of drones and had four major crashes last year. The CIA runs its own drone operations on a “covert basis.”

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