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Search to resume for Reaper drone that crashed into Lake Ontario

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WATERTOWN - The mission to find a crashed MQ-9 Reaper drone will resume this morning after a search in Lake Ontario was called off Tuesday evening due to bad weather.

The cause of the crash, which took place about 1 p.m. about 20 miles northeast of the Port of Oswego, has not yet been determined. It is the first crash of the unmanned aircraft for the 174th Attack Wing, Syracuse, since it started operating the drones from Fort Drum’s Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield in October 2011.

“The mission was going as advertised, up to the point where we did lose control of the airplane,” said Col. Greg A. Semmel, commander of the New York Air National Guard unit.

Col. Semmel said during a news conference Tuesday evening that an investigation has been launched. In the meantime, all of the unit’s training flights have been suspended.

“Safety is our No. 1 priority at this point,” he said. “We’re going to let our investigative team do their job and, as we come up with the results of what happened, we will use that to make things safer.”

The aircraft crashed while flying in approved airspace during a routine student training exercise after taking off from Fort Drum’s airfield. No injuries or property damage were reported in connection to the crash, and the aircraft, which Col. Semmel valued at approximately $4 million to $5 million, had no weapons or hazardous materials on board.

Boat and helicopter crews from the U.S. Coast Guard’s stations in Oswego and Buffalo took part in the search effort prior to it being called off for the night. A plan for today’s search still was being developed, Col. Semmel said Tuesday.

At Fort Drum’s airfield, the attack wing has a local crew that serves in a launch and recovery role, controlling takeoff of the aircraft before transferring control by satellite to a remote cockpit in Syracuse, where much of the unit’s pilot training takes place. The local crew also performs maintenance work.

The aircraft has a wingspan of 66 feet and weighs approximately 8,000 to 10,500 pounds, depending on how much fuel, gear and supplies it is carrying.

Col. Semmel said a second Reaper drone was airborne at the time of the crash, and that aircraft was able to return to Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield without any damage.

Despite Tuesday’s crash, Col. Semmel said he was confident in the aircraft’s safety record.

“It’s as safe of an airplane as any other airplane that the Air Force flies,” he said.

The commander did not specify what the weather was like at the time of the crash, but said conditions were “good enough to fly.”

The unit currently has video of the crash, but a timetable for the release of that footage was not announced during the news conference.

The crash took place less than a week after the unit opened up a new $5,194,860 hangar to store two of its drones at the Wheeler-Sack airfield. Last month, the unit reached its 2,000th flight hour with the unmanned aircraft at Fort Drum.

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