A helicopter’s crash landing in South Carolina this week may have been triggered by a civilian drone, which would make it the first drone-related crash of an aircraft in the U.S.
The incident on Wednesday involved a student pilot and instructor, who told investigators that a small drone appeared directly in front of them, according to a person familiar with a federal probe. They took evasive action to avoid a collision, and the tail of the helicopter hit a tree, triggering a crash landing.
Neither the pilot nor the student was injured, though the helicopter’s tail appeared to suffer significant damage, said the person, who wasn’t authorized to discuss the probe publicly.
The Robinson Helicopter Co. R22 went down about 2 p.m. near Charleston, according to a statement by the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA didn’t confirm the possible role of the drone. The National Transportation Safety Board is aware of the possible role of the drone in the crash and is gathering information on the case, spokesman Chris O’Neil said in an email Thursday.
The accident investigation is the second possible incident involving a drone in less than a week and comes as aviation groups are demanding tighter regulations on civilian drone use following reports of other possible near collisions involving the devices.
In the U.S., drones are typically restricted to flights within 400 feet of the ground and within sight of the operator. They are supposed to also stay clear of traditional aircraft. But in the thousands of FAA reports of possible drone safety incidents, many involved apparent illegal flights.
Canadian authorities released a report Wednesday on a collision there with a small charter plane. The FAA said earlier this week it is trying to confirm whether an air-tour helicopter in Hawaii clipped one as well. The incidents come just days after leading aviation-industry groups urged Congress to tighten regulations on hobbyist drones because of a video apparently showing one flying feet from an airliner near Las Vegas.
The use of drones near airports and “within controlled airspace poses a serious risk to aviation safety,” Canada’s Transportation Safety Board said in the report. “For this reason, all recreational and non-recreational drone users must be knowledgeable about and comply with the regulations, including the requirement to operate within line of sight.”
The FAA in a study based on computerized models last fall concluded that drones would cause more damage than birds of similar size because they contain metal parts. Significant damage to windshields, wings and tail surfaces was possible, the study found.
The surging number of incidents combined with a regulatory system that makes it difficult to monitor drone flights has alarmed traditional aviation groups.
“The likelihood that a drone will collide with an airline aircraft is increasing,” said a letter to U.S. lawmakers earlier this week from Airlines for America, a trade group representing large carriers, and the Air Line Pilots Association and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the unions that represent pilots and controllers.
The Hawaii incident occurred on Friday over the island of Kauai, according to the FAA. The pilot reported seeing the drone that hit the helicopter and scratches were found on the copter afterward. There was no significant damage and no one was injured, according to the FAA.
The only confirmed drone-related aviation accident in the U.S. occurred on Sept. 21 above New York City. A drone struck an Army helicopter near Staten Island, according to the NTSB. The helicopter landed safely. The drone’s operator had flown the device out of his sight and didn’t see the helicopter, the NTSB found.
Confirming whether a drone was involved in such cases has been difficult. In the New York case, a piece of a drone was found lodged in the helicopter and its part number was used to trace it back to the owner.
A small drone that struck a charter plane carrying eight people above Quebec City highlights the need for people to follow legal restrictions, an investigation by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada concluded.
The TSB couldn’t find debris from the drone or its operator after the Oct. 12 collision. It called on operators of the devices to better educate themselves on the rules and safety hazards. The plane, a twin-turboprop, was able to land safely with only minor damage to its left wing, the report found.
Even groups that have traditionally defended the rights of hobbyists to fly drones have been raising increasing alarm.
The Academy of Model Aeronautics, which represents hobbyists who fly at clubs around the country, issued a statement Tuesday saying “some rogue flyers choose to operate in an unsafe manner despite existing drone laws.”
It called on the FAA and local police to “hold these people accountable.”
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