For want of one "line replaceable unit", a $73m drone was lost

We don't cover military drones here, but I'll make an exception for this fascinating accident report. We've all lost drones due to technical malfunctions, so we can sympathize with this. At least ours didn't cost $73 million.

From Defense Tech:

On August 11, 2011 Air Force ground controllers lost contact with one of the military’s most advanced — and expensive — drones, an EQ-4B Global Hawk as the jet flew high over Eastern Afghanistan.

Nine hours into an otherwise smooth communications relay mission using the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN), the plane was cruising at 51,000-feet above sea level 105 nautical miles northwest of Kandahar, Afghanistan — close to the border with Pakistan, in fact, the few news reports that emerged of the crash claim the jet actually went down inside Pakistan —   when a pilot from the 12th Reconnaissance Squadron out of Beale Air Force Base in California “lost all links with the payload,” according to a copy of the Air Force’s report on the incident that the service sent to DT. The pilot did everything he could to reestablish communications with the mammoth drone, but 25 seconds after losing communications, the plane began a high-speed fall to Earth. If plummeted so fast that “both wings and at least one of the lower aft fuselage fairings” were ripped off the jet as it fell. Three minutes later, the Global Hawk crashed into “remote, desert terrain approximately 4 nm from its last reported position and was destroyed,” reads the Air Force’s report. “the estimated loss is valued at 72.8 million.”

So, what caused this?

A single part — or Line Replaceable Unit, as the report calls it — came undone, interrupting the flow of electricity to the plane’s aileron and spoiler actuators — the tiny motors that control the movements of an aircraft’s flight control surfaces you know, the moving parts of the wings that control whether the plane climbs, dives, banks, rolls, etc. As expected, this disconnection rendered “the aircraft uncontrollable.”

(Critical parts that lose it like this one are called single points of failure, meaning that if these sometimes tiny and seemingly insignificant parts fail, the entire weapon system fails. Naturally, military equipment makers try o identify these and do all they can to ensure they won’t fail.)

Why did this single part become disconnected? “The board president also found, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the LRU [the critical part] installation methods were a contributing factor in the mishap,” reads the a summary of the report. Apparently, the screws holding the part in place weren’t tight enough and probably shook loose due to typical flight vibrations.

One other thing to note, the jet’s “avionics were not recovered from the crash site.” Let’s hope they were destroyed in the crash and the subsequent bombing of the wreckage by Air Force bombers and not scooped up by someone who could sell them to the Russians or Chinese.

Read the full reporthere:  

Views: 3106

Comment by Ellison Chan on March 7, 2012 at 6:10pm

I thought the whole idea is that these drones were dispensable.  So why does it cost $72M, when a piloted f-16 cost under $20M?

Comment by Jack Crossfire on March 7, 2012 at 6:39pm

Redundancy is another $73 million.

Comment by Andrew Rabbitt on March 7, 2012 at 6:52pm
This is confusing. They lost comms and then the craft crashed effectively due to a servo failure? Or there is a single point failure that can take everything out...? Doesn't sound like 73 million bucks worth to me
There's more to the story, I'm sure
Comment by Aaron Buckner on March 7, 2012 at 7:01pm

@Ellison Chan: ummm seriously? so you are saying that a human life has a dollar value? not that I'm happy with the price tag

Comment by Ian forbes on March 7, 2012 at 7:06pm

Miltary Drone == $73 million

4 screws at hardware store = $3.00

1 Tube of locktite blue  -- $2.64


Getting your drone home in one piece -- Priceless

Comment by Ian forbes on March 7, 2012 at 7:08pm

Anb a human life is nowhere near worth 73 million as far as estimated cost by military, insurance and airline estimates ;).  more like avg of $250,000 just fyi...

Comment by Christopher Cooper on March 7, 2012 at 7:31pm

Ian, you've forgotten to add the cost of training, the cost of the SAR mission to find the downed pilot, his/her medical treatment etc...

Comment by Greg Fletcher on March 7, 2012 at 7:31pm

The loss of coms was not directly due to loss of servo power. It was due to the plane diving out of control and not being able to aim its parabolic sat com antenna at the satellite. They should have used a little locktite. But that was probably not in the procedure.... I read the report and it wasn't. It was recommended by the review board to add thread locking compound.

Comment by Ellison Chan on March 7, 2012 at 7:42pm

When it costs a country zero human life risked, to fight a battle, is the day we shall all mourn.

Comment by Greg Fletcher on March 7, 2012 at 9:24pm

@ Ellison, The plane was unarmed and supporting coms for people on the ground who where risking their lives to fight a battle.


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