Military Cargo Plane Struck by Drone

(Dan Herbeck)   A military cargo plane from the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station was damaged when an unmanned drone crashed into it during an Afghanistan mission last month, officials have confirmed.

The C-130 Hercules transport plane, assigned to the 914th Airlift Wing of the Air Force, had to make an emergency landing after it was struck by the drone on Aug. 15, authorities said.

Crew members — including at least two people from the 107th Airlift Wing of the New York Air National Guard, according to sources familiar with the incident — were unhurt.

“That’s very rare … I’ve never heard of that happening before,” said Keith J. Mackey, an aviation safety consultant. “Without a doubt, the crew is lucky that no one was hurt. If the drone had crashed into the cockpit and disabled the crew, it could have brought the [cargo] plane down.”

The incident is likely to fuel further debate about the military’s increased use of remote-controlled drones in the Middle East and whether drones are safe in American airspace, Mackey said.

Military officials declined to say Friday whether any men or women based in Niagara Falls were aboard, but three sources with knowledge of the incident said members of the 107th — which is based in the Falls — were on the plane.

Officials disclosed few details about the incident.

“The investigation is still ongoing as to the cause, and until it is completed, we’re not going to release very many details,” said Sgt. Amanda Currier of the Air Force Central Command at Shaw Air Base in South Carolina.

The most important thing, Currier said, is that no one was hurt.

She said the C-130 cargo plane had to make an emergency landing in eastern Afghanistan after it collided with a remote-controlled RQ-Shadow tactical aircraft, commonly known as a drone.

Currier said she could not specify what section of the cargo plane was hit by the drone, how much damage was done or how the pilot was able to land the cargo plane without injuries.

The drone, operated by the Army, was a surveillance aircraft that was not equipped with any weapons or explosives, Currier said.

Unmanned drones have been used increasingly in Middle East war efforts in recent years. Some of the drones are used for surveillance and some can fire missiles to kill suspected terrorists.

While the Obama administration has defended the use of drones, critics — including some from the United Nations — say drone missiles have killed many innocent civilians, in addition to the individuals who were targeted.

“There is now discussion about the use of drones for surveillance and other purposes in U.S. airspace, and it’s a big controversy,” said Mackey, 68, a 50-year pilot whose business, Mackey International of Ocala, Fla., conducts flight accident investigations.

“The use of drones is a new phase of aviation, and there are growing pains,” he said.

Officials of the 914th Airlift Wing declined to comment on the mishap, except to say that, to their knowledge, no one from the 914th was aboard the cargo plane when the drone crashed into it.

The damaged cargo plane belongs to the 914th, but crew members from its partner unit — the 107th Airlift Wing — frequently use the aircraft owned by the 914th, military officials said. They added that, at times, aircraft owned by the 914th is used by air crews from military units in other parts of the country.

Eric D. Durr, spokesman for the state Division of Military and Naval Affairs, said he could not comment when asked by The Buffalo News if anyone from the 107th Airlift Wing was aboard the cargo plane. He referred questions to Air Force officials, who also declined to say whether anyone from the Niagara Falls base was on the plane.

There is a huge size disparity between the cargo plane and the drone, which crashed to the ground after the collision.

The C-130 Hercules is one of the larger planes used by the military, and can weigh up to 175,000 pounds, according to a website run by the American Federation of Scientists. The transport plane is almost 98 feet long and its wingspan is nearly 133 feet.

The RQ-Shadow drone is almost 12 feet long, with a wingspan of about 13 feet, and three feet high, according to the website. The drones weigh just 165 pounds.

According to the Air Force, a C-130 transport plane can cost anywhere from $11.9 million to $48.5 million. The cost of the plane damaged in Afghanistan was not released.

Mackey speculated that such a collision was more than likely caused by “some kind of mechanical or human error.”

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