Conditions at an African base used by U.S. military pilots flying missions over Yemen and Somalia have become chronically dangerous, with fliers relying on local air-traffic controllers who sleep on the job and commit frequent errors, the Washington Post reported on Thursday.
Conditions at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti are so bad that U.S. warplanes and civilian airliners alike are routinely placed in jeopardy, according to federal aviation experts and documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the Post said.
U.S. officials told the Post the Obama administration has been pressing Djibouti in high-level talks to bolster aviation safety. Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to travel to Djibouti on Saturday.
Navy Captain Matthew O’Keefe, the commanding officer of Camp Lemonnier, told the Post the risks cited in the documents obtained were old issues and did not reflect current conditions. The Post said it took 14 months for the Navy to release heavily redacted versions of the documents.
Unlike other U.S. military bases around the world, Camp Lemonnier has to use civilian air-traffic controllers hired by the government of Djibouti, the Post said. The base shares its two runways with Djibouti’s only international airport, a French military base and a contingent of Japanese military planes.
As traffic at the base has increased, the controllers’ dangerous habits and dislike for drones have disrupted U.S. military operations and prompted repeated warnings about the risk of a deadly accident, the Post said.
Some controllers habitually dozed on the floor while on duty and some chewed the leafy stimulant khat. Others played video games or made personal phone calls while ignoring communications from pilots, said the U.S. military documents, which were based on observation reports from the flight tower.
Controllers sometimes punished U.S. flight crews by forcing them to circle overhead until they ran low on fuel, the Post said.
In one case, an observer told an air traffic controller that an unmanned plane he was monitoring was low on fuel. The controller said he did not care because drones “only want to kill Muslims in Yemen and Somalia,” the report said.
(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Grant McCool)