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Air National Guard unit commander talks restart of drone operations following Nov. 12 crash


As the 174th Attack Wing restarted its MQ-9 Reaper flight operations this week, the unit’s commander vouched for the safety of the unmanned aircraft.

“I am personally very confident in the safety of this airplane, and I’m very confident in the pilots, essential operators and air crews and maintainers that operate it,” said Col. Greg A. Semmel.

The unit’s Reapers had been grounded since one of the drones crashed Nov. 12 in Lake Ontario. Col. Semmel said that the plan since then had been to return to flying operations. The unit has eight remaining Reapers.

“We wouldn’t have done that unless we were assured we could do it safely,” he said.

The New York Air National Guard unit commander spoke to members of the media Wednesday afternoon from the unit’s headquarters at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base, near Syracuse.

The downed MQ-9 Reaper has not been found in the frigid waters of Lake Ontario, as active duty Air Force and Navy units continue planning for a more thorough investigation and salvage effort. Though the full aircraft has not been found, Col. Semmel said that a “significant” number of pieces have been located through shoreline searches, and that the pieces could help reconstruct the crash.

The crash took place about 12 miles from the lake’s eastern shore and 35 miles from Fort Drum’s Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield, where it took off. The aircraft was traveling in approved airspace during a routine training exercise at the time of the crash.

Col. Semmel said that the incident was considered a Class A crash, meaning an internal Air Force Safety Investigation Board will have 30 days to complete an internal report about the crash. A second investigation board will create a publicly released report in approximately three to six months.

In the meantime, Col. Semmel said, he was not aware of any personnel changes that had resulted from the crash, as that would be a part of the safety board’s review.

The commander said that any decision about modifications to the aircraft, such as the placement of a Global Positioning System on the aircraft, would come from different Air Force leadership, also pending the recommendations of the internal safety board.

There has been no effort to find any fuel lost from the aircraft, Col. Semmel said, and he could not say how much was on the aircraft at the time of the crash. The aircraft had no classified information on board.

Though Col. Semmel first estimated the Reaper’s cost at $4 million to $5 million, General Atomics, the company that makes the Reaper, told the Associated Press the drone’s cost starts at $10 million.

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