- - Monday, January 30, 2012

JERUSALEM — A long-range Israeli drone capable of surveillance and bombing missions over Iran crashed Sunday near an Israeli air base during a test flight.

The Heron TP unmanned aircraft can stay aloft for 40 hours and has a range of 4,600 miles, the Israeli air force said. The distance between Iran and Israel is about 1,000 miles.

Gen. Ido Nehushtan, commander of the Israeli air force, said new technology on the drone was being tested when the aircraft crashed into an orchard near the Tel Nof air base outside Rehovot.

A preliminary investigation indicated that human error and a technical malfunction contributed to the accident, the air force said, adding that the investigation is ongoing.

According to military sources, a wing that fell off the drone had been fitted with a highly advanced navigational device that might have interfered with the aircraft’s other flight systems.

The Israeli military’s most advanced drone has a wingspan of 85 feet, nearly that of a Boeing 737, and a payload capacity of 2,200 pounds. It was developed by Israel Aerospace Industries.

Known as the Eitan in Israel, the drone has platforms for surveillance equipment and for firing rockets, and can be used in a variety of mission such as aerial refueling, jamming communications and relaying ground control in Israel to manned aircraft over a distant target.

Israeli officials reportedly have been considering a military strike on Iran to prevent the Islamic republic from making an atomic weapon, and the Eitan, which soars as high as 40,000 feet, would likely play a key role in an attack.

According to press accounts, the drone was used in a 2009 airstrike in Sudan against a Gaza-bound convoy carrying Iranian arms destined for the Hamas militant group.

The drone also is used reconnaissance missions over Lebanon and along the Egyptian border and to protect against sabotage of Israel’s offshore natural gas installations.

Gen. Nehushtan said 25 percent of the air force’s mission are carried out by drones.

A squadron of Eitans was inaugurated in December 2010 and is scheduled to become operational in coming weeks.

In December, an advanced U.S. surveillance drone using stealth technology went down in Iran. Iranian officials claimed to have forced it down electronically.