By Guy Higgins

I recently read an article in Air Force Times, Air Force: Pilot’s checklist distraction led to Reaper crash. The article discusses the crash of a Reaper unmanned air vehicle and attributes the crash to the pilot’s focusing on his checklist rather than flying the airplane.

Here’s some background for folks who might not be familiar with Reapers and the surrounding processes. A Reaper is an unmanned air vehicle (UAV) built by General Atomics of La Jolla, CA. It is the armed variant of the Predator surveillance UAV. The process used to get a Reaper up and on its mission is to have one pilot conduct the takeoff and climb to operational altitude at which time the takeoff pilot transitions the Reaper to a mission pilot who will fly the Reaper throughout its mission.

The sequence of events reported in the article is:

  • The takeoff pilot controlled the Reaper as it took off from the runway and climbed it to 8,500 feet.
  • At 8,500 feet, the takeoff pilot commanded the Reaper into the autopilot mode.
  • The programmed mission altitude was 9,000 feet, so the Reaper continued to climb.
  • At 8,500 feet altitude, the takeoff pilot notified the mission pilot that he (I’m assuming it that the takeoff pilot was a man only because the report did not specify pilot gender) was transitioning control to the mission pilot.
  • The mission pilot acknowledged the transition and began the transition checklist.
  • At the same time, the mission pilot commanded the Reaper to a cruise power setting (this is the power setting necessary to achieve the maximum range during flight to the operating area and that is needed to achieve the maximum time on station once in the operating area – it is also a lower power setting than that which is needed to climb {foot stomp here}).
  • While the mission pilot was conducting the transition checklist, the Reaper continued to climb to 9,000 feet – at an inadequate power setting.
  • The Reaper’s airspeed decreased until the UAV entered an aerodynamic stall.
  • The mission pilot, still paying attention to the transition checklist, did not observe stall indications and (since there are no humans in the unmanned air vehicle) could not detect any of the classic airplane stall indications (such as stall buffet).
  • The Reaper stalled, lost altitude and shortly thereafter experienced uncontrolled flight into the terrain.

The report concluded that the mission pilot was so involved in executing the transition checklist that he inadvertently allowed the Reaper to stall and crash.

I am a big advocate of checklists for critical situations (and this certainly seems to be one). While checklists are important, useful and powerful tools, there are also priorities that need to be considered – priorities that extend from routine operations into critical situations, emergencies and crises. Leadership is (among the near-infinite list of other things I have posted about) about providing our people with the tools (e.g. checklists) they need, the priorities they need to adhere to, and the authority to do the right thing. Doing the right thing is the most critical responsibility any of us (leaders and non-leaders) have. In the case of a pilot, the right thing is very crisply captured in the very old saying among aviators, “The pilot’s priorities are to 1) aviate, 2) navigate, 3) communicate.” In the case of the Reaper crash, the mission pilot failed to adhere to that priority list. He got embroiled in the transition checklist and forgot to aviate. That does not absolve the takeoff pilot for handing off responsibility before achieving mission altitude. Accidents are frequently the result not of a single major failure, but of the accumulation of small errors. Leaders, by providing the tools, priorities and authority to do the right thing, can help avoid those small errors leading to accidents.



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