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The drone had been in the air for close to five hours before its mission crew realized that something was wrong. The oil temperature in the plane’s turbocharger, they noticed, had risen into the “cautionary” range. An hour later, it was worse, and it just kept rising as the minutes wore on. While the crew desperately ran through its “engine overheat” checklist trying to figure out the problem, the engine oil temperature, too, began skyrocketing.
By now, they had a full-blown in-flight emergency on their hands.”We still have control of the engine, but engine failure is imminent,” the pilot announced over the radio.
Almost two hours after the first signs of distress, the engine indeed failed. Traveling at 712 feet per minute, the drone clipped a fence before crashing.
Land of the Lost Drones
The skies seem full of falling drones these days. The most publicized of them made headlines when Iran announced that its military had taken possession of an advanced American remotely piloted spy aircraft, thought to be an RQ-170 Sentinel.
Questions about how the Iranians came to possess one of the US military’s most sophisticated pieces of equipment abound. Iran first claimed that its forces shot the drone down after it “briefly violated” the country’s eastern airspace near the Afghan border. Later, the Islamic Republic insisted that the unmanned aerial vehicle had penetrated 150 miles before being felled by a sophisticated cyber-attack. And just days ago, an Iranian engineer offered a more detailed, but as yet unsubstantiated, explanation of how a hack-attack hijacked the aircraft.
For its part, the United States initially claimed that its military had lost the drone while it was on a mission in western Afghanistan. Later, unnamed officials admitted that the CIA had, in fact, been conducting a covert spy operation over Iran.
The drone crash that led this piece did occur in Afghanistan—Kandahar, to be precise—in May of this year. It went unreported at the time and involved not a sleek, bat-winged RQ-170 Sentinel, but the older, clunkier, if more famous, MQ-1 Predator, a workhorse hunter/killer machine of the Afghan war and the CIA’s drone assassination campaign in the Pakistani tribal borderlands.
A document detailing a US Air Force investigation of that Predator crash, examined by TomDispatch, sheds light on the lifecycle and flaws of drones—just what can go wrong in unmanned air operations—as well as the shadowy system of bases and units scattered across the globe that keep those drones constantly in the skies as the United States becomes ever more reliant on remote-controlled warfare.
That report and striking new statistics obtained from the military offer insights into underexamined flaws in drone technology. They are also a reminder of the failure of journalists to move beyond awe when it comes to high-tech warfare and America’s latest wonder weapons—their curious inability to examine the stark limitations of man and machine that can send even the most advanced military technology hurtling to Earth.