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Charleston helicopter accident could be 1st drone-caused aviation crash in U.S.

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Federal investigators are looking into a helicopter crash on Daniel Island just south of this subdivision. The pilot told police he crashed after trying to avoid a nearby drone. If investigators confirm his account, the accident would be the first drone-caused crash in U.S. history. File/Wade Spees/Staff

A low-flying helicopter that crashed on Daniel Island could land a spot in aviation history if investigators confirm its pilot’s account of what went wrong.

Initial reports indicate a low-flying helicopter that had been hired for a flight lesson crashed Wednesday while trying to avoid a drone buzzing nearby.

The flight instructor made a hard turn about 50 feet above the tree line, and as he moved to dodge the drone, the helicopter’s tail nicked something — brush or a small tree. The pilot lost control as the helicopter fell to its side.

That’s the narrative laid out by the helicopter’s pilot in a Charleston police report describing the accident. The crash didn’t get much attention locally; no one was hurt, and it happened on the undeveloped tip of Daniel Island, obscured from public view.

If the pilot’s story checks out, the crash would be historic. Never before in U.S. history has a drone caused an aircraft to crash.

Investigators said Friday they haven’t made that determination.

The Federal Aviation Administration says it’s still looking into the accident. The National Transportation Safety Board, which will make the final ruling on what caused the crash, says it can’t confirm details of what happened.

The flight instructor, who works for Holy City Helicopters, and his student told Charleston police they were practicing low-altitude hovering when they spotted a quadcopter drone heading toward them. The instructor took over to avoid it but the helicopter’s tail rotor hit some sort of vegetation.

"The NTSB is aware of the pilot’s report that he was maneuvering to avoid a drone, but the NTSB has not yet been able to independently verify that information," NTSB spokesman Christopher O'Neil said.

The two were flying near an unfinished subdivision on the southern end of the island, close to Charleston Harbor. That’s where they saw what looked like a DJI Phantom, a popular drone model.

Daniel Island is outside of the restricted airspace that surrounds Charleston International Airport, but FAA maps show that most of the Charleston area is within a few miles of a helipad, indicating that drone pilots should be on the lookout for helicopters.

The drone and its owner haven’t been located.

Holy City Helicopters and DJI couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. In a statement to Bloomberg, DJI said it would cooperate with federal investigators.

Under federal law, drones have to be flown within eyeshot of their pilots and they have to keep clear of manned aircraft to avoid accidents.

Federal authorities have recorded a growing uptick in close calls between drones and traditional aircraft. In the past year, the FAA has taken nearly 2,100 reports of drone sightings near aircraft and airports. It logged 20 reports in South Carolina alone.

Those run-ins rarely force pilots to maneuver away like Wednesday’s did, but drones sometimes come close.

A pilot approaching the Charleston airport in June told the FAA he saw a drone 200 yards off his right wing. That same day in Myrtle Beach, a drone flew so close to the airport that it was spotted by an approaching pilot and air traffic controllers.

A few months earlier, police in Myrtle Beach went searching for a drone operator after “several” tour helicopters reported one flying near their landing pad, FAA records show.

Those sorts of close calls have raised concerns from the airline industry and pilot groups that the odds are increasing a drone will collide with another aircraft. Federal investigators are looking into a drone that apparently scratched the bottom of a tour helicopter in Hawaii last week, the Honolulu Star Advertiser reported.

Still, the U.S. has only confirmed one such in-air collision. That happened in September in New York, when a DJI Phantom drone flew undetected into restricted airspace and smashed into an Army helicopter’s rotor blade.

In that case, the helicopter landed safely.

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Reach Thad Moore at 843-937-5703. Follow him on Twitter @thadmoore.

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