Single Part Breaking Lost a $72 Million Drone

On August 11, 2011 Air Force ground controllers lost contact with one of the military’s most advanced — and expensive — drones, an EQ-4B Global Hawk as the jet flew high over Eastern Afghanistan.

Nine hours into an otherwise smooth communications relay mission using the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN), the plane was cruising at 51,000-feet above sea level 105 nautical miles northwest of Kandahar, Afghanistan — close to the border with Pakistan, in fact, the few news reports that emerged of the crash claim the jet actually went down inside Pakistan —   when a pilot from the 12th Reconnaissance Squadron out of Beale Air Force Base in California “lost all links with the payload,” according to a copy of the Air Force’s report on the incident that the service sent to DT. The pilot did everything he could to reestablish communications with the mammoth drone, but 25 seconds after losing communications, the plane began a high-speed fall to Earth. If plummeted so fast that “both wings and at least one of the lower aft fuselage fairings” were ripped off the jet as it fell. Three minutes later, the Global Hawk crashed into “remote, desert terrain approximately 4 nm from its last reported position and was destroyed,” reads the Air Force’s report. “the estimated loss is valued at 72.8 million.”

So, what caused this?

A single part — or Line Replaceable Unit, as the report calls it — came undone, interrupting the flow of electricity to the plane’s aileron and spoiler actuators — the tiny motors that control the movements of an aircraft’s flight control surfaces you know, the moving parts of the wings that control whether the plane climbs, dives, banks, rolls, etc. As expected, this disconnection rendered “the aircraft uncontrollable.”

(Critical parts that lose it like this one are called single points of failure, meaning that if these sometimes tiny and seemingly insignificant parts fail, the entire weapon system fails. Naturally, military equipment makers try o identify these and do all they can to ensure they won’t fail.)

Why did this single part become disconnected? “The board president also found, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the LRU [the critical part] installation methods were a contributing factor in the mishap,” reads the a summary of the report. Apparently, the screws holding the part in place weren’t tight enough and probably shook loose due to typical flight vibrations.

One other thing to note, the jet’s “avionics were not recovered from the crash site.” Let’s hope they were destroyed in the crash and the subsequent bombing of the wreckage by Air Force bombers and not scooped up by someone who could sell them to the Russians or Chinese.

Click through the jump to read a copy of the accident report.

EQ-4 Crash Final Report for Distribution

39 Comments on "Single Part Breaking Lost a $72 Million Drone"

  1. 105 miles northwest of Kandahar? That's still inside Afghanistan, but headed in the direction of Iran.

  2. Poor drone… it just goes to show how delicate complex technology can be. I fully acknowledge accidents are bound to happen, especially given how much more often these things are flown. However, the loss of a $72.8 million drone due to a few loose screws is an unacceptable mistake. Get 'er done Air Force.

  3. Or this is just a cover up for the Chinese testing out sat-com link jamming and such. Especially since they are viewing UAVs as a next gen threat.

  4. Its not the Federal Government w/o multimillion dollar mistakes. How ever a self destruct device may be needed more than anything else in drone improvements to prevent a Iran 2.0

  5. It served its purpose and no pilots are lost. Expensive but that’s what drones are for. Easier to replace. Now we are receiving the actual benefit of the drone.

  6. Tip to the USAF: Go to a hardware store. Spend $2.50 for a tube of Loc-tite thread locker. Save $72. million…..

  7. Post should be entitled shoddy contractor maintenance costs another 74 million. No single part failed the contractors simply didn't know how to install their own companies equipment properly.

  8. Where so far ahead tech wise, so do we really need another billion dollar project

  9. like the F-35 wasn't enough to break the bank.

  10. This accident is completely absorbed in a normal distribution. Move on.

  11. Accidents happen, especially to RPAs. There has been over $2B worth of RPAs lost in the last decade, and they are only going to get more expensive and still rain out of the sky

  12. stephen russell | March 7, 2012 at 8:41 pm | Reply

    Bad Parts QA? Fake part used??

  13. 72 million? chump change.

    a broken Congress plus a broken White House have been costing the US and the world billions of times more.

  14. Anom deplume | March 7, 2012 at 9:52 pm | Reply

    Suggested followup questions for the members of the press to ask.
    1. What, if any, part of the component failure leading to this incident would have been prevented or mitigated if the GH had been truly 'weaponized' after it had been drafted into the operational inventory as a DARPA project?
    2. Has anyone in the GH program advocated increasing the redundancy of the control systems? If yes, who (govt, contractor)? Were the systems made more robust? If not, why not?

  15. The whole point of drones is to avoid human casualties in the risky everyday theatre of war, which includes minor part failures. Nothing is perfect but as far as weapons go the Global Hawk comes pretty close.

  16. What does loss of electricity to an actuator have to do with the initial loss of all comm. links between controller and drone before it started its downward fall?

  17. Sounds like pilot error to me. What, there's no pilot to blame? It can't possibly be the contractor's fault. They hire lobbyists. They buy US Senators. It's funny, manned airplane crashes are always the pilot's fault, but manned aircraft crash at 1/100th the rate of unmanned vehicles. They never get credit for all the times they saved the US taxpayer millions of dollars, or rode an airplane into a smoking hole in a field instead of living through an accident that caused many ground casualties.

  18. You can have the highest tech product, but if your quality controls were lacking then it doesn't mean crap. The THAAD missile from Lockheed Martin had these problems during the testing phase. The govt almost cancelled the program because of quality issues.

  19. Do we blow these things up after a crash or are we providing China with a model to reverse engineer?

  20. Bummer… sure is a pretty looking drone =(

  21. I worked on aircraft.
    All critical parts need to be safety wired.
    Someone needs to get in trouble for not requiring a fastener with a small hole for that.

  22. Does the USAF actually fly any a/c without safety wiring the connectors and screws? I'll check into current maintenance procedures. This is an extremely damning development for this organization. $72 million dollars buys a "heck of a lot" of safety wire and man-hours. Did they have flight insurance :) ??

  23. This title is beyond lame on a military site.
    As if you said one fastener got loose on the wing and the plane fell, gee wiz, REALLY, a PLANE, no way.
    Hello, maintenance checks are rigorous for a reason.

  24. Kuahiwi Bear | March 8, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Reply

    In my day, LRU stood for Least Replaceable Unit…which basically meant the smallest part of a "gadget" that could be replaced..what – we're getting so high tech nowadays that we have to change the meaning of an acronym? gimme a break..

  25. OK so it was not a communication issue, it was not a build in flight control and navigation issue. It was a flight control cable not put into place correctly by maintenance (Or poor design). This could have happened to any aircraft that runs fly by wire, it's not a drone specific issue…. Seems like they would have some redundancy in those cables though.

  26. To mathesize: you're saying that 72e6 * 1e9 >= the consequence of 1 Broken Congress + 1 Broken White House. You can do math, yes? And you're not fond of hyperbole, you say?

  27. "For want of a nail, the shoe was lost…" I live outside Beale AFB, and they're taking this VERY seriously, believe me.

  28. Edwardretusaf | March 9, 2012 at 6:02 pm | Reply

    I guess no thought of a recovery chute.

  29. 1 word redundancy

    It works in the marine industry!

  30. Who knew a part that was supplied by the lowest bidder, probably China, failed?

  31. How the hell would they KNOW that mount screws came loose and are responsible? I smell BS here, high and mighty BS! I postulate that something else went terribly wrong, for the umpteenth time with Global Hawk, and crashing in hostile territory is very, very unpleasant for high-value-persons in DOD! Somebody's head had to roll, and, oh well, let's just blame maintenance. Can't be unproven after you put a JADAM on the wreckage! Hey and nraddin, if it's fly by wire-there are NO CABLES!!

  32. A fail safe self distruct explosive charge activated by an AWAC's aircraft in the area should be standard procedure. That would be part if their IFF coded signals and a General officer in the AWACs aircraft would send the last radio message that the Drone receives.I strongly disagree wirh calling the technicial a pilot as most are enlisted personnel that fly these drones but thats another story for the funny papers


  34. for all of you armchair mxrs, give it up. what is the price of a U2 and pilot? what about or beloved SR, would that be better? if you have no clue of what an RPA is "supposed" to do after a set time of lost comm, dont second guess. Also, anyone that has been in and or around the USAF can predict a board's findings 80-90% of the time. No pilot lost, mx fault-pilot lost, pilot error. Think, before you spew garbage from your pie-holes. BACN is out-performing expectations, in a very short time. AF Mxrs do what TOs tell them, complacency causes crashes. 'nuff said!

  35. For the want of a nail the shoe was lost. For the want of a shoe the horse was lost . For the want of a horse the war was lost. Ditto Prometheus G.W. & RunningBear. I was an A&P Mechanic before training into Flight Engineer. From the B-29 all the way to the C-124 and the C-141. Cannon Plugs and or ANY electrical connectors "GET SAFETY WIRED!!" I live near Beale AFB, I'll go see what the crew chiefs are doing these days!

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