Pilot error led to Global Hawk drone crash near Grand Forks

The Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk is used as a High-altitude long endurance platform to support U.S. assets worldwide. NASA and Northrop Grumman will be working on the Global Hawk aboard Marine Corps Base Hawaii to test its flight capabilities. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Pfc. Samantha Sanchez)

Adam Kurtz

Grand Forks Herald

GRAND FORKS — A release issued by the U.S. Air Force indicates that pilot error caused a $64 millionGlobal Hawk drone to crash in a field about 7 miles from Grand Forks Air Force Base on Aug. 6, 2021.

According to an April 22 release from the Air Combat Command, three pilots, including an instructor pilot, made a series of errors in giving commands to the drone. The pilots did not realize the drone was flying 4,000 feet too high, which caused it to overshoot the base and crash into a field.

According to the release, at 6:16 a.m. the drone was flying a mission in the local military operating area when a mission control pilot experienced a “workstation lockup.” It is unclear what caused the lockup, but the release indicates it caused the drone to return to Grand Forks Air Force Base on an autonomous, pre-programmed route. The drone missed its approach because the pilot did not sever communications with the aircraft at the appropriate time.

Soon thereafter, a second launch and recovery pilot and an instructor pilot re-established the connection with the aircraft, though the second pilot issued an altitude override command instead of giving the drone a new flight route. Neither the recovery pilot nor the instructor were aware the drone was 4,000 feet too high, or that the drone had missed its approach.

“The ( Accident Investigation Board) president found that the cause of the crash was both the pilot’s incorrect selection of aircraft flight commands, which resulted in the aircraft’s controlled flight into terrain, and the instructor pilot’s failure to provide sufficient inputs to the pilot to prevent the aircraft’s controlled flight into terrain,” reads a portion of the release.

The AIB president also found the control pilot failed to follow established procedures, and that the workstation lockup, including the lack of documented procedures about requesting numerous detailed status requests within a short time frame, resulted in the control pilot’s inability to “positively control the aircraft.”

The aircraft was valued at $62 million when it was acquired by the U.S. Air Force. There were no injuries or deaths associated with the accident.

The news release is presumably a synopsis of a much larger document detailing the situation that led up to the crash. The Herald has requested more information about the crash and the pilots to officials at Grand Forks Air Force Base, as well as the Air Combat Command.


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