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UPDATED: Air Force drone crashes in field near Grand Forks; investigation may take weeks, Air Force reports

The Air Force is working to recover the drone, which has a 130.9-foot wingspan and weighs about 14,950 pounds.

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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
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An unmanned Air Force drone crashed Friday morning in a field about 4 miles north of Grand Forks Air Force Base.

The RQ-4 Global Hawk crashed into a field on the 2700 block of 27th Avenue Northeast Friday, Aug. 6, according to interviews with Grand Forks County Sheriff's deputies and Air Force public affairs staff.

Sheriff's deputies, Air Force staff and members of the North Dakota Highway Patrol were on the scene Friday morning. The Air Force was working to recover the drone, which has a 130.9-foot wingspan and weighs about 14,950 pounds.

The Air Force issued a press release about the crash shortly after 11 a.m., noting the time of the crash -- around 7 a.m. -- and that the drone was returning to the base at the time of the incident.

The Air Force report noted there were no injuries at the scene of the accident. A fire was extinguished and the incident is under investigation with recovery operations underway. The site is an active military investigation, the Air Force said, and the public is requested to avoid the area as much as possible in order to preserve the scene.

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“319th Reconnaissance Wing has personnel on site and we anticipate recovery operations and the official investigation may take several weeks,” said Col. Jeremy Fields, 319th Reconnaissance Wing vice commander. “I’d like to personally thank local law enforcement, Customs and Border Protection and emergency services for their support on scene.”

Recovery operations will continue through the weekend, Lea Greene, public affairs officer, said in an email to the Herald.

Crashes of Air Force drones occasionally occur, according to various news reports.

In 2018, an RQ-4B Global Hawk crashed off the coast of Spain due to an inflight engine failure, according to news release shared by Greene with the Herald.

The RQ-4B Global Hawk had been conducting a ferry flight from Grand Forks Air Force Base, to a unit located in the U.S Central Command area of operations when it crashed on June 26, 2018. The Air Combat Command Abbreviated Aircraft Accident Investigation Board president found that the cause of the mishap was an oil leak from a cracked oil line, which caused an engine uncommanded inflight shutdown.

The investigation revealed the aircraft registered system faults ranging from low oil to low pressure, which then led to eventual mechanical failure. Due to the engine shutdown, the pilot diverted the aircraft, crashing into the ocean to avoid loss of human life or infrastructure damage.

The aircraft wreckage was fully recovered from the site by United States government air and naval assets.

The loss of government property is valued at $98.83 million. There were no reported fatalities, injuries or damage to civilian property.

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In June 2020, an MQ-9A Reaper lost power and crashed shortly after takeoff from an airport in Syracuse, N.Y. According to the news outlet Stars and Stripes, the Reaper lost all engine power and was “significantly damaged” when it struck the end of the runway.

The cause of the accident was later determined to be pilot error, occurring after the pilot misidentified a flap lever on the control panel. The two levers, according to an Air Force report quoted in Stars and Stripes, are just an inch apart but have “very different functions.” Damage to the aircraft was estimated at $6 million.

Also in 2020, the Air Force intentionally crashed a drone over Africa after the aircraft lost fuel. Rather than let the drone coast to a landing and have minimal damage, the Air Force chose a hard crash to make it impossible for sensitive pieces or instruments of the MQ-9A Reaper to be recovered. It was an $11.2 million loss.

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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