Pilot error was the principal cause of a drone crash in Eastern Europe last summer, Air Force investigators concluded.

A U.S. Air Force MQ-9A Reaper drone cannoned into a remote patch of land on the outskirts of the 71st Air Base in Campia Turzii, Romania, July 14, 2022, according to local media reports. A five-month investigation released Thursday by Air Combat Command blamed the accident on the “channelized attention” and poor adherence to “basic airmanship” of the Launch Recovery Element controlling the unmanned aircraft system.

ACC officials say the aircraft, assigned to the 432nd Wing at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, began experiencing “malfunctions with control systems” shortly after taking off for a training mission at an “undisclosed location” in Europe.

The LRE mishap pilot and sensor operator, tasked with guiding the troubled drone back to base, elected to perform an “emergency engine-out landing” — cutting power to the engine in hopes of safely gliding the aircraft back to the airstrip. The team, misguided by the Reaper’s misfiring warning systems, misdiagnosed the drone’s issue as “stuck [engine] torque.”

The LRE shut down the engine, but the haywire indicators suggested it was still operational. Unaware they’d successfully powered down the aircraft, the crew attempted to abort the landing and circle back around for another attempt, according to the report. The unresponsive Reaper pummeled into the ground.

The only injury caused by the crash was budgetary: The destroyed drone cost $14.6 million. Flight safety analysts have documented 68 MQ-9 Reaper accidents since the model first took to the skies in 2001. A Russian jet collided with a Reaper over the Black Sea in March.

The Air Force began flying MQ-9 missions from Romania in February 2021. Directed by the 25th Attack Group and overseen by the 432nd, the operations are designed to support Romania and NATO allies’ defense capabilities and security objectives in Eastern Europe.

Jaime Moore-Carrillo is an editorial fellow for Military Times and Defense News. A Boston native, Jaime graduated with degrees in international affairs, history, and Arabic from Georgetown University, where he served as a senior editor for the school's student-run paper, The Hoya.

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