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Unit’s search for missing drone in Lake Ontario will likely transfer to Air Force board Wednesday

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The mission to find a crashed MQ-9 Reaper drone in Lake Ontario likely will be transferred Wednesday to a special Air Force investigation group.

In addition to creating an internal report on what led to the crash, the service’s Safety Investigation Board will have the authority to call in additional resources to recover the multi-million-dollar aircraft.

The drone’s operator, the New York Air National Guard’s 174th Attack Wing, based in Syracuse, has been searching the shoreline since the aircraft’s Nov. 12 crash, but its efforts have been hampered by inclement weather.

Maj. Sandra D. Stoquert, unit spokeswoman, said the search was called off Monday due to poor weather conditions. There also will be no search today because of the possibility of high winds and snow.

She said the unit’s final day of searching will be Wednesday. Its commander, Col. Greg A. Semmel, will make the call at the end of the day about whether to transfer the efforts at that point to the safety board, which arrived in the area on Sunday.

The aircraft crashed 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. The unit’s remaining Reapers have been grounded since the crash.

Though Col. Semmel 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.

Maj. Stoquert said the Federal Aviation Administration has some information about the aircraft’s final path before it crashed that may help the Air Force do a more thorough search.

In addition to the reports of the Air Force safety board, a separate Accident Investigation Board will produce a publicly releasable report about the crash.

Maj. Stoquert said the crash currently is listed as a suspected Class A crash. If the listing is confirmed by the Air Force, the safety board would have a 30-day timetable to complete its report.

Maj. Stoquert estimated that completion of the Accident Investigation Board’s work would take three to six months, beginning near the end of the safety board’s review.

U.S. Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, said on Monday that he is waiting until the end of the Air Force investigation before making a full judgement on the aircraft’s use and safety.

“We need to see the report to see if this is a single incident, or if this is a significant issue,” he said.

If the investigation shows significant safety concerns with the aircraft, he said “we’d need to reevaluate.”

The incident took place less than a week after the unit opened up a new $5,194,860 hangar to store two of its drones at Fort Drum’s airfield. Mr. Owens said he still would support a $4.7 million two-bay expansion of that hangar to house the unit’s third and future fourth aircraft. Money for the expansion currently is being debated as a part of the 2014 defense authorization bill working its way through Congress.

Mr. Owens also said he does not think the crash will negatively affect the region’s chances of being one of six selected by the FAA to test integrating unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace System. The FAA is scheduled to make a decision on sites by the end of the year.

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