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Air Force report on Grand Forks drone crash expected by end of 2021

A "safety investigation board" has already produced a secret report on the drone that crashed into a Grand Forks County field in August. An "accident investigation board" is set to wrap up its work this month and, according to Air Force public affairs staff, produce a public report on the accident by the end of the year.

080721.n.gfh.GlobalHawk crash.jpg
The presumptive site of a RQ-4 Global Hawk, near a combine and truck, that crashed into a field about four miles north of the Grand Forks Air Force Base Friday morning is viewed from about 2 miles south of the scene. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

The Air Force has finished the first of two investigations into an August drone crash, and airmen are expected to finish the second -- and publish a public report with their findings -- by the end of the year.

A “safety investigation board” first met on Aug. 6, seven days after an unmanned, $130 million RQ-4 Global Hawk drone left a 300-yard trail of debris as it crashed into a rural Grand Forks County field about 4 miles north of Grand Forks Air Force Base. The seven-person board wrapped up at Langley Air Force base on Oct. 1 and produced its report on Oct. 14.

Air Force staff said the the SIB’s report is "not releasable" because it contains “privileged analysis.” They also declined to name the people who compose the board, citing an exemption in the Freedom of Information Act that keeps military personnel, medical, and other files from public view if they’d “constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

But a second unnamed panel that convened last month is set to produce a second report about the crash that could actually see the light of day.

An “accident investigation board” began meeting Oct. 21 at the Grand Forks Air base, and that six-member panel is set to finish its own investigation within 30 days. That would put the board’s deadline at Nov. 20, but there will presumably be another wait while Air Force staff review the report before publishing it.

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It’s unclear exactly how long that wait could be. Lea Greene, the head of public affairs at Grand Forks Air Force Base, said the longest review period she’s seen lasted about a month. She said she was “hopeful” the report on the August drone crash would be published by the end of the year.

Unlike the safety board’s report, which Air Force staff said is meant for “mishap prevention” exclusively within the U.S. Department of Defense, the AIB’s report is set to be released to the public. It’s meant to be used in litigation, discipline, and “adverse administrative action,” according to Air Force public affairs staff.

The Air Force published a similar report after an unmanned RQ-4B Global Hawk drone that took off from Grand Forks Air Force Base plunged into the ocean near Rota, Spain.

That accident investigation board blamed the crash on a cracked oil line that caused its engine to shutdown. It also found that the drone’s mission plan did not account for enough airfields at which the drone could land in an emergency.

Col. Robert K. Clement, who presided over the 2018 accident investigation board, noted that there were several Portuguese airfields that could have accommodated the drone, but none were “stitched” into its mission plan. That forced the drone’s remote pilot to choose between crashing the plane into the Atlantic Ocean or trying to make it to a Spanish airfield that was ultimately calculated to be too far away.

That report, though, had a wait time of much longer than a month, though. The crash happened in June of 2018, but the report is dated June of 2020.

“That one was especially sensitive because of the nature of the crash and where it crashed,” Greene told the Herald. “This one shouldn’t be that long.”

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