No Military Units Have Free Time to Grab that Downed Global Hawk Off Mt. Whitney

The U.S. Air Force remains tight-lipped about a now weeks old crash of a RQ-4 Global Hawk drone in California. However, updated plans for hiring a private contractor to recover the wreckage, as well as official comments to The War Zone, provide additional details about the crash site, such as safety hazards and environmental concerns, including an explanation for the decision to go with a private contractor for the job at all.

On June 30, 2017, Air Force Test Center (AFTC) at Edwards Air Force Base first announced it was looking for a contractor with a heavy lift helicopter to retrieve pieces of the wreck via FedBizOpps, the U.S. government’s main contracting website. At the time of writing, the center had updated the post three times to include new information. Still, none of these updates had answered what was perhaps the biggest question, which was why the Air Force needed a contractor to do the work in the first place. The U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps, as well as reserve components including the California Army National Guard, all operate helicopters that appear to meet the contract’s requirements, such as the CH-47 Chinook and CH-53E Super Stallion. Many of those units train to recover downed aircraft.

“The Air Force has coordinated with the California National Guard and other Active Duty units for support,” Christopher Ball, chief of media operations for the 412th Test Wing at Edwards, which also handles queries about AFTC, told The War Zone in an Email. “These units were unable to support our requirement for various reasons.”

Though we still don’t know what those exact reasons are or were, it is true that the California Army National Guard’s aviation elements are busy fighting forest fires in the state, as well as other requirements. Though headquartered in Washington State, the active Army’s 16th Aviation Brigade is deployed to Afghanistan, too. West Coast-based Marine heavy helicopter squadrons may have similar operational or training conflicts. Pulling units from elsewhere in the United States might not work with the Air Force’s truncated schedule for getting at the downed Global Hawk.

The Skycrane, which once served with the US Army as the CH-54 Tarhe, is still in high demand today., US Army

As such, the Air Force’s preferred solution remains a contractor flying the old, but still capable Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane, which can carry up to 20,000 pounds of cargo under optimal conditions. The revised statement of work clarifies the aircraft AFTC considers to be acceptable, adding the Boeing Model 234UT to the list by name, which we at The War Zone had already mentioned in our previous update. This twin-rotor “utility transport,” a derivative of the CH-47 Chinook, has similar payload capabilities to the Skycrane, according to Columbia Helicopters, an operator of the type.

Unfortunately, high altitudes combined with hot weather and associates changes in air pressure can dramatically limit the performance of many helicopters, reducing their maximum load carrying capacity and range. Summer temperatures in nearby communities, such as Lone Pine, California, have consistently been above 80 degrees Fahrenheit since the crash. Based on new information, these will all be factors in and around the crash site. 

In responses to questions from prospective vendors, dated July 6, 2017, AFTC confirmed government officials had not yet physically been to the crash site, but disclosed that it is at an altitude of almost 10,000 feet. Authorities had been able to reach an area above the crash, one imagines by helicopter, at approximately 11,500 feet, before descending 1,500 feet to a spot “just above the site.” Other officials had climbed up from an unspecified starting point below, but only made it to a height of 7,400 feet. Photographs taken by witnesses and local media after the mishap suggested the drone ultimately slammed into the side of California’s Mount Whitney.

The Air Force had been able to determine that parts of the Global Hawk were strewn across an area of approximately 400,000 to 500,000 square feet that is a mile across at its longest point. More problematically, much of this sits on a steep 60 to 70 percent grade. The largest visible remaining section of the RQ-4 is a 20 to 25 foot long portion of the fuselage, or roughly half of the unmanned aircraft’s full length, according to the questions and answers document. The service estimates this portion alone could weigh up to 5,000 pounds. The Global Hawk’s full weight is nearly 15,000 pounds.

U.S. Marines continue building a landing zone using AM2 panels as a CH-53 comes in to land., USMC

So it makes perfect sense that the Air Force wants someone with a heavy lift chopper to get in and grab the remnants of the RQ-4 from this remote site. But, likely due to the range and capability limitations of any suitable helicopter while carrying these potentially large loads while operating in the aforementioned “hot-and-high” conditions, the Air Force plans to provide a temporary landing zone using Aluminum Matting-2 (AM2) within 5 miles of the crash site where contractors will first deliver any components their retrieve.

“Edwards AFB’s crash recovery team worked with the U.S. Forest Service, BLM [Bureau of Land Management] and other agencies to identify the nearest area to the crash site that would work well as a landing zone,” Ball explained in his Email. “Any parts recovered from the mountain will be relocated to this staging area temporarily before being transported back to Edwards AFB where they can be examined by the accident investigation board.”

Beyond that, the Air Force provided additional details about the safety and environmental concerns to the updated statements of work and in its answers to contractor questions. “The crash site/fire is entirely within the congressionally designated John Muir Wilderness, ‘where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain,'” the revised statement of work on July 8 noted. The contractor would need to be mindful of an endangered animal species and candidate endangered plant species, the Sierra Nevada Big Horn Sheep and Whitebark Pine respectively, as well as concerns from more common wildlife, such as bears. Also, “do not collect prehistoric or historic artifacts” and “report all cultural resource discoveries and protect/secure the discovery location,” the statement of work adds.

A map showing the John Muir Wilderness within the Inyo National Forest., US Forest Service

All in all, it sounds like it will be a complicated operation. Given all of these factors, the Air Force has stated unequivocally that “the Government will not put the vendor in a position that would potentially jeopardize the crew or aircraft during performance of the mission” and that it would agree to halt work by mutual agreement with whomever they ultimately hire if the situation becomes too dangerous.

RQ-4 Global Hawk, Northrop Grumman

Otherwise, the Air Force continues to decline to release official photographs of the wreckage or offer a more granular description of the basic circumstances surrounding the accident.“The cause of the crash won’t be known until the accident investigation board completes its investigation,” Ball wrote. “The board first gathers all available evidence from all sources that can be located and then examines and compares all the data available before drawing any conclusions and completing its report.”

Since it can take months for investigators to complete these reports and for the Air Force to review them for release to the public, it may be some time before we get the full story on what exactly happened to the RQ-4.

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