NORFOLK, VA. — The GPS and other systems in an Air Force drone failed multiple times during a routine training mission in upstate New York, causing the unmanned aircraft to crash into Lake Ontario in November, according to an investigation whose results were released Tuesday.
The MQ-9 Reaper crashed about 35 miles southwest of Fort Drum, New York, where it had taken off. Nobody was injured in the crash, although the drone was destroyed upon impact. The crew was training the drone for intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance missions, according to a report put together by an Air Force accident investigation board.
The report says the drone had been properly maintained and inspected prior to its flight, but there were multiple failures with its GPS and a navigation system after about two hours of flight. While the drone’s ground-based air crew tried to return the Reaper to base, the drone lost its connectivity with them and switched to autopilot to return to base on its own on a path that avoids populated areas and potential obstructions, the report said.
While another air crew tried to establish a link with the drone, another GPS and inertial guidance system error occurred. Seconds later, the drone began an automated right turn that inverted it and eventually led to an unrecoverable flat spin, the report says. Soon after, the Reaper crashed into the New York portion of Lake Ontario. It took about 15 minutes from the time the first GPS error was noted until the Reaper crashed. The Air Force valued the loss at about $10.6 million.
Most of the drone’s parts were not recovered and pieces of it later washed ashore about 12 miles east of where it crashed.
The drone and its air crew were assigned to the Syracuse-based 17 4th Attack Wing at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base, New York.
The accident investigation board is based at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, which is home to Air Combat Command.