Officials in northern Japan — where the U.S. Air Force has decided to temporarily base its largest unmanned aircraft — want more information about the safety of military drones following a recent report that more than 400 large remotely controlled aircraft have crashed since Sept. 11, 2001.
Information about the crashes was included in 50,000 pages of accident investigation reports and other records provided to The Washington Post, which filed two dozen Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps.
The public release of the crash data comes less than a month after the Air Force began flying the RQ-4 Global Hawk out of Misawa Air Base — a dual-use facility where the U.S. military shares a runway with commercial passenger jets.
The Global Hawks have been temporarily moved to Misawa from Guam, which is in the path of typhoons during the summer months. Officials have not revealed exactly where they fly during missions other than “various places around the Pacific.” However, experts say they are likely spying on North Korea and China.
Misawa City officials were assured of the Global Hawk’s exemplary safety record by U.S. Forces Japan commander Lt. Gen. Sam Angelella last month. But now they have asked the Japanese government to confirm the validity of the newly released drone accident data, which indicates that six Global Hawks have crashed.
The drone safety documents, which include data from the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA, universities, law enforcement agencies and other drone users, detail numerous cases of unmanned aircraft flying dangerously close to passenger planes in the U.S., along with a large number of crashes and near-misses involving military drones.
In April, a 375-pound Army drone crashed beside a Pennsylvania elementary school minutes after students had gone home.
In June 2012, a Navy Global Hawk crashed in Maryland, setting off a wildfire, the Post reported.
Perhaps the most worrying incident was a mid-air crash between a C-130 Hercules — a large military transport plane — and an unmanned 375-pound RQ-7B Shadow in eastern Afghanistan in August 2011. The crash destroyed the drone and forced the smoking Hercules to land immediately with jet fuel pouring out of a gash in its wing, the Post reported.
Misawa City military affairs office chief Shuichi Hiraide said local officials were told by the Japanese Defense Ministry that there is no record of major accidents involving the Block 30 Global Hawk — the type that is deployed to Japan.
“Misawa City reviewed the deployment request, gathering opinions from citizens,” he said. “Because deployment of drones is the first in Japan, we asked the military through the ministry for a thorough disclosure of information and to ensure safety maintenance, as well as thorough training of troops engaged in the operation.”
The city has yet to receive a reply to its request for verification of the newly released data, he said.
“What we have now is a translated version of the (Washington Post) report,” Hiraide said. “We are presently seeking more information, especially (about) the Global Hawk Block 30.”
The Global Hawk received the Air Force's Sustainment Excellence Award for superior performance in 2013 and 2014.
Fifth Air Force and Misawa Air Base officials worked with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defense and the Tohoku Defense Bureau to ensure the appropriate local government officials were aware of the Global Hawk's safety record and operational procedures prior to basing the Global Hawk at Misawa, according to 5th Air Force officials.
Col. Matt Dana, vice commander of Misawa’s 35th Fighter Wing, said concerns within the Misawa community have been responsible.
“We want to make sure we understand the mission and how these things work,” he said.
One of the criteria used to select Misawa as a Global Hawk base was the attitude of the surrounding community, he added.
“The relationship here at Misawa is so strong that we can do this,” he said.
About 40 personnel from Detachment 1, 69th Reconnaissance Group are at Misawa over the summer operating and servicing the Global Hawks.
One of the Global Hawk pilots, Maj. Timothy, whose full name was withheld for security reasons, said a number of safeguards are in place to avoid collisions with passenger jets at Misawa.
“We prefer to be predictable in our routing to make it easy to integrate with other aircraft; however, we can be operated just like any other aircraft and react to directions from ground control,” he said.
Global Hawk operators have several ways of controlling the aircraft and there is a back-up power supply to keep their controls online in an emergency, the major said.
Once aircraft land, they are shepherded to their hangars by ground vehicles with a driver in radio contact with the pilots, he said.
Planners will schedule the drone take-offs and landings at Misawa during times when civilian air traffic is low, he said.
FAA officials will likely pay close attention to the performance of the aircraft at Misawa, Maj. Timothy said.
Arizona State University engineering professor Braden Allenby said officials need to be aware that mixing drones and manned aircraft will bring challenges.
“This is pretty clearly where aviation is trending; we all know that modern airplanes are highly automated, and that in many cases pilots are not in hands-on command during normal operational mode,” he said.
Unmanned transportation of all kinds — not just air, but road, ocean and otherwise — is inevitable, Allenby said.
“People will need to get used to it, but sure, we will have pilotless passenger planes — probably after a period of using pilotless freight planes, so we get experience with the technology, and the public gets comfortable with it,” he said.