White Sands closed for 5th day as drone crash debris cleanup continues

By LINDSEY ANDERSON | Las Cruces (N.M.) Sun-News | Published: February 11, 2014

LAS CRUCES, N.M. -- White Sands National Monument is losing thousands of dollars each day while cleanup of drone wreckage continues into its fifth day at one of the nation's most popular monuments.

More than 900 would-be visitors have been turned away each day since a QF-4 drone from Holloman Air Force Base crashed at the monument Friday morning.

Adults visitors typically pay $3 per person to enter the monument, meaning the wreck costs the site as much as $2,000 per day. The loss from film permits, sold to photographers and videographers who arrive early or stay after hours, raises that cost even further.

Holloman's Public Affairs Office had no update Tuesday afternoon on when the monument will reopen. The cause of the crash remains unknown, officials said.

Visitors who stopped by White Sands, about 50 miles northeast of Las Cruces on U.S. 70, were visibly disappointed Tuesday after pulling into the parking lot and seeing "CLOSED" signs.

Peter and Patt Wilson traveled from Vancouver, Canada, to stop at the monument while on a Southwest road trip.

"It's not like we can come back in a couple of days," Peter Wilson said.

"Or a couple of years," Patt Wilson added.

The two scanned the guidebooks in the monuments's store, asking about another outdoor alternatives in the region.

Crash cleanup

The drone crashed around 9 a.m. Friday in the Dunes Drive area, the part of White Sands open to the public.

The monument was closed in advance of a test mission, so there were no injuries, officials have said.

The drone was scheduled to be shot down during the test mission but the "test didn't go according to plan," Holloman spokesman Arlan Ponder said.

The QF-4 is a Vietnam-era aircraft modified to fly remotely. Its orange tail signifies that it is a drone.

Much of the large debris has been removed from the wreck site, but other concerns remain, such as jet fuel emitted from the drone, monument Superintendent Marie Sauter said.

Environmental experts from the National Park Service have been brought in to aid Holloman in the cleanup, Sauter said.

The monument is home to hundreds of animals, including five species found only on the New Mexico dunes.

"It's in an area that we really want to make sure is protected," Sauter said.

Chance of a crash

The likelihood of aircraft crashing on Dunes Drive is small, monument spokeswoman Becky Burghart said. The public area is only 10 percent of the total monument, which spans military and National Park Service land.

Missiles from White Sands Missile Range and aircraft from Holloman do occasionally crash in the area, but they tend to fall on military land, officials said.

Parks employees could not recall a time in the past 10 years when aircraft crashed on Dunes Drive, Burghart said.

"Things do go down in the monument, but it's pretty rare they affect visitors," she said.

Holloman's last QF-4 crash was near Hope in eastern New Mexico in July 2011, though there was a pilot guiding the aircraft, Ponder said. The pilot was unharmed.

Unmanned QF-4s crashed on the Air Force base in 2006 and 2004, Ponder said.

"One chance"

Jamie Castro and her family stopped at White Sands on their drive from Virginia to California, hoping to let 2-year-old Junior Pule stretch his legs.

It was the family's "one chance" to see the largest gypsum dune field in the world, Castro said.

"It sucks," she said. "It's really disappointing, especially for him. We wanted to let him run around and burn energy."

Peter Wilson visited White Sands in 1990 with his son but his wife, Patt, wasn't able to join them. He hoped to show her the dunes this year on their road trip.

"I was looking forward to showing her the place because it's such a special landscape," he said.

The Canadian couple said they may never have the chance to return to the monument.

"When you miss out on it —," Peter Wilson began.

"— It's kind of done," Patt Wilson finished.

In this undated photo provided by the U.S. Air Force, a QF-4 Drone is in flight as it is tracked by a missile at Tyndall AFB, Fla.


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