A review of “thousands of pages of unclassified Air Force investigation reports,” obtained by US daily the Washington Post indicates that the drones flying from civilian airports “have been plagued by setbacks,” including pilot error, mechanical failure, software bugs and poor coordination between American military pilots and civilian air traffic controllers in foreign nations.
In an April 4 incident, according to a Saturday report by the daily, a US Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone “on a classified spy mission over the Indian Ocean” and remotely piloted by “an inexperienced military contractor in shorts and a T-shirt” from a trailer at Seychelles International Airport crashed at the civilian airport that serves half-million passengers per year.
According to “a previously undisclosed Air Force accident investigation report,” the USD 8.9-million aircraft “belly-flopped on the runway, bounced an[d] plunged into the tropical waters” at the end of the runway, as the pilot forgot to put down the wheels while trying to make an emergency landing.
In a separate incident on January 14, 2011, a Predator drone crashed off the Horn of Africa while attempting to land at an international airport next to a US military base in Djibouti.
Since then, the report said, “at least six more predators and Reapers have crashed in the vicinity of civilian airports overseas,” including instances in which contractors were remotely piloting the drones.
Predator and Reaper assassination drones can carry satellite-guided missiles and have become President Barack Obama administration’s “primary weapon” against what American officials call “al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.”
Meanwhile, the report said, the drone mishaps have become “more common” at a time when the US military as well as domestic law-enforcement agencies “are pressing the Federal Aviation Administration to open US civil airspace to surveillance drones.”
The report further reiterated that “the pressure to fly drones in the same skies as passenger planes” will likely grow as the US-led war in Afghanistan winds down and the American military and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) redeploy their increasing fleets of Predator and Reaper drones.
The military began flying unarmed Reaper drones from a civilian airport in Ethiopia in 2011 to spy on neighboring Somalia.
Moreover, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declared in a November 20 address in Washington that the US military intends to expand the use of drones “outside declared combat zones” in pursuit of “al-Qaeda supporters in Africa and the Middle East.”
“These enhanced capabilities will enable us to be more flexible and agile against a threat that has grown more diffuse,” Panetta emphasized.
In Djibouti, where five US terror drones have crashed since the Air Force began expanding drone operations in a declared effort to “combat terrorist groups” in nearby Yemen and Somalia, the American pilotless aircraft operate from Camp Lemonnier, a rapidly-growing US military base “devoted to counterterrorism,” the report said. The base is adjacent to Djibouti’s international airport and shares a single runway with passenger aircraft.
Meanwhile, US drone pilots have complained to investigators about the Djiboutian air traffic controllers, claiming they speak poor English, are “short-tempered” and are uncomfortable with Predator drones in their airspace.
They further claim that the Djiboutian controllers give priority to passenger planes and order drone pilots to keep their aircraft circling overhead even when they are dangerously low on fuel.