The last moments of Predator #07-3249

The drone, armed with a single Hellfire missile, crashed on its approach to the runway next to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti on May 17, 2011. Air Force investigators concluded that low clouds and humidity obscured the drone’s camera sensor – rendering it “blind” – and that a Global Positioning System malfunction misjudged how close the aircraft was flying to the ground.

COCKPIT VOICE RECORDING TRANSCRIPTS

 23:15:22- Air Traffic Controller – CALL SIGN (XXXX) 5 miles final, gear down runway 9

 23:15:28- PILOT – Gear down, runway 9

 23:15:31- ATC – clear to land runway 9, CALL SIGN (XXXX)

 23:15:34- SENSOR – Dude, look at this camera. Seriously, I can’t do anything. There’s nothing I can do. I just nuked it.

 23:15:41- PILOT – Alright.

 23:15:42- SENSOR – Let’s try it again.

 23:15:44- PILOT – Yeah, see what you can get working and I’ll plan on landing on this for now.

 23:15:47- SENSOR – There’s seriously like something… This camera is completely [expletive].

 23:15:54- SENSOR – Like there’s something in the air.

 23:16:24- SENSOR – Alright 30 seconds and this will be the second nuke at this altitude which if it doesn’t correct it, it’s unbelievable.

 23:16:41- SENSOR – Did he say, “Cleared to land”?

 23:16:42- PILOT - Yeah

 23:16:44- SENSOR – Ok. Checklist complete, links are set up, autopilots disengaged, cleared to land, try to mess with this picture.

 23:17:01- SENSOR – Yeah dude, I literally have…. No picture right now. This camera’s like, completely messed up.

 23:17:16- SENSOR – Can you land on that?

 23:17:17- PILOT – Uh, I’m going around if I can’t see it.

 23:17:21- SENSOR – What altitude are we at right now?

 23:17:23- PILOT – Oh

 23:17:27- PILOT – That was the ground

 23:17:27- PILOT – That was the ground.

NOTES:

• The pilot and sensor operator were part of a ground recovery crew at Camp Lemonnier that took over the remote controls of the drone for landing.

• A “nuke” is a non-uniformity correction, or a procedure intended to reset or adjust the picture from the drone’s infrared sensor.

• The Predator crashed into undeveloped terrain in Djibouti city, about 2.7 miles west of the runway. No bystanders were injured, but the $3 million drone was a total loss.

Source: U.S. Air Force Accident Investigation Board report

Craig Whitlock covers the Pentagon and national security. He has reported for The Washington Post since 1998.
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