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Crashed drone in Grand Forks County worth about $130 million, Air Force says

The "Base 40" RQ-4 Global Hawk that crashed into a field about 4 miles north of Grand Forks Air Force Base last week was worth about $130 million, Air Force staff says.

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 unmanned military drone that crashed into a Grand Forks County field last week was worth about $130 million dollars and left a 300-yard debris field, Air Force staff said Wednesday, Aug. 11.

The “base” model of the RQ-4 Global Hawk costs about $99 million, according to Lea Greene, the chief of public affairs at Grand Forks Air Force Base, and the “Block 40” version has another $30 million worth of sensors and other equipment.

“It’s not very often that we lose one,” Greene said. “It’s upsetting, but at least it’s unmanned.”

But the damage the crash incurred isn’t limited to the plane: the barley field into which the plane crashed on Friday, Aug. 6, was also worth something, and the jet fuel and other materials scattered there damaged the field itself. Greene said the Air Force is set to clean up the crash site, and, in effect, put it back the way it was. The field’s owner and the man who leases it could also ask for further relief, but have not yet done so.

Chris Edmonds, a U.S. Customers and Border Protection employee who leases the field and, coincidentally, handles on-the-ground logistics for the border patrol's drone flights, estimated that he’d harvested about 500-600 bushels of barley from the field when the Air Force drone plowed into it. The crash and subsequent recovery efforts have kept him from harvesting any more. Yields from the portion of the field into which the drone crashed are contracted out to brewing company Anheuser-Busch, Edmonds said.

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The plane is still in the field and could be for several more weeks. Greene said other aircraft have taken more than a month to extricate from their crash sites. The downed Global Hawk, though, is different because it’s unmanned, which means it’s built out of lighter materials that scatter farther than an aircraft that carries people, Greene indicated. The debris left by the crashed drone is as long as three football fields, she added.

Air Force officials could take weeks to determine the cause of the crash. A “Safety Investigation Board” comprised of a colonel and six to 10 additional officers is set to convene on Friday, Aug. 13. They’ll seek to find the root cause of the crash in an effort to prevent similar ones from happening again. They’ll ultimately publish a confidential report.

Beyond that, the Air Force could call an “Accident Investigation Board” comprised of a senior pilot and several other specialists to put together a public report that can be used in litigation, discipline, and so on.

A similar drone crashed in 2018 off the coast of Spain en route from Grand Forks Air Force Base to an unspecified part of the U.S. Central Command’s area of operations, which cover the Middle East and portions of southern and central Asia. The head of that “AIB” found that oil leaking from a cracked line caused an engine to falter, and the pilot diverted the drone into the water. The cost of that accident was about $98.83 million, Air Force staff claimed.

RQ-4 Global Hawk
An RQ-4 Global Hawk soars through the sky to record intelligence, surveillence and reconnaissance data. U.S. Air Force handout photo

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