One of the Air Force’s premier drones crashed Tuesday morning in the Seychelles, the Indian Ocean archipelago that serves as a base for anti-piracy operations, as well as U.S. surveillance missions over Somalia.
The crash of the MQ-9 Reaper comes roughly two weeks after a U.S. drone went down in Iran.
The Seychelles, where U.S. officials have worked closely with local officials to establish the drone base, is hardly enemy territory, and the drone that crashed Tuesday was operated by the Air Force, not the CIA, which operated the stealth RQ-170 that crashed in Iran.
Still, Tuesday’s crash once again illustrates the fallibility of unmanned aerial vehicles.
The Air Force acknowledged the crash at the Seychelles airport, and a spokesman for the service said the crash happened as the drone was landing. No one was injured.
The Air Force said the cause of the crash — the first ever of a Reaper in the Seychelles — was under investigation. A statement from the civil aviation authority in the Seychelles attributed it to engine failure, saying that, after landing, the drone failed to stop before skidding into an outcropping of rocks at the end of the runway.
“It has been confirmed that this drone was unarmed and its failure was due to mechanical reasons,” the statement said. The Air Force confirmed that the MQ-9 was unarmed.
Photos of the Reaper show that it sustained heavy damage, with the nose of the drone carved off and one wing partially missing.
Gervais Henrie, editor of the local Le Seychellois Hebdo, who witnessed a crew lifting the remains of the drone with a crane after the crash, said it had burst into flames. Much of the Reaper appeared charred.
“Totally destroyed,” Henrie said in a phone interview.
The U.S. military is believed to have only a handful of Reapers in the Seychelles, based in a hangar located about a quarter-mile from the main passenger terminal at the airport.
The island nation of 85,000 people has hosted the drones since September 2009. U.S. and Seychellois officials have said the primary mission of the Reapers was to track pirates in regional waters, but they have also been used to conduct surveillance missions over Somalia.
The base in the Seychelles is part of a constellation of drone bases that the U.S. government has expanded in the region to monitor or attack al-Qaeda affiliates.
Hernie said Seychellois often see the Reapers flying overhead, and that they have come to accept them as a a routine part of living in the islands.
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