Leading US newspaper reinforces concerns over risks posed by drones


A letter I wrote and which was published in the Seychelles Nation questioning whether civil aviation officials had seriously examined the implications of allowing drones to fly from Seychelles international airport (following the crash of a drone at the airport), is the focal point of a leading front page article in the Washington Post of Friday November 30.

In my letter, I had posed the question “what guarantee do we have that never will one of these drones crash upon or collide with an approaching plane or crash on the air control tower itself?”

Now the Washington Post, which is regarded as the most circulated and most influential newspaper in the USA, has conducted its own independent research and in the November 30 issue carried this front page article under the heading “Drone crashes mount at civilian airports” which reinforce concerns about the risks of flying the robot aircraft outside war zones including the United States.

According to Craig Whitlock “a review of 1000 pages of unclassified air force investigation reports, obtained by the Washington Post under public record requests shows that drones flying from civilian airports have been plagued by setbacks.  Among the problems repeatedly cited are pilot error, mechanical failure, soft ware bugs in the ‘brains’ of the aircraft and poor coordination with civilian air traffic controllers.
According to the Washington Post article from the beginning of September 2011 records show that the US air force took the unusual step of outsourcing the entire operation to a Florida-based private contractor, Merlin RamCo which is based in Jacksonville Florida.  A privately held company that was incorporated in 2006 to support air force missions and that this contractor was subjected to little direct oversight in the Seychelles.  The record showed “the air force posted 2 officials on the island to coordinate flights and serve as a liaison with the contractor but neither had experience operating drones”.

According to Whitlock after Merlin RamCo took charge the two drones deployed to the Seychelles “quickly became hobbled by problems” and in November 2011 the air force liaison officers grounded the drones after discovering that they had not received mechanical upgrades.  Just days after the aircraft resumed flying on December 13 one of the drones ran into trouble.

Two minutes after take-off the engine failed and the pilot was unable to restart it and tried to execute an emergency landing but the aircraft, which was not armed at the time, descended too quickly and landed too far down the runway.  It bounced passed a perimeter road over a rock breakwater and sank about 200 feet offshore.  Investigators blamed the crash on an electrical short and concluded that the pilot made things worse by botching the landing”.  The whole investigation by the Washington Post raises huge questions of negligence and recklessness and can be read in full www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/drone...

According to the article Tom Saunders, a spokesman for the U.S. military’s Africa Command, said the Air Force has not flown drones from the Seychelles since April. He declined to comment on whether it planned to resume the flights.

Meanwhile I have received a special congratulatory message from Greg Mattson, who was a former US Chargé d’Affaires resident in Seychelles, for my vision and foresight in the matter.

James R. Mancham

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