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 weapon against 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.
The mishaps have become more common at a time when the Pentagon and domestic law-enforcement agencies are pressing the Federal Aviation Administration to open U.S. civil airspace to surveillance drones.
The FAA permits drone flights only in rare cases, citing the risk of midair collisions. The Defense Department can fly Predators and Reapers on training and testing missions in restricted U.S. airspace near military bases.
The pressure to fly drones in the same skies as passenger planes will only increase as the war in Afghanistan winds down and the military and CIA redeploy their growing fleets of Predators and Reapers. Last year, the military began flying unarmed Reapers from a civilian airport in Ethiopia to spy in next-door Somalia.