Mount P. man sights strange aircraft flying over Charleston

This is a still frame from a video taken by Mount Pleasant resident Frank Heindel, who said he thought the three white dots in the upper left corner flying near a fixed light might be from a drone, but he doesn't know what they are.

What's buzzing over Charleston?

A Mount Pleasant man said he saw at least five unidentified objects flying over the Wando Welch Terminal, Mount Pleasant, Daniel Island and nearby areas just before 10 p.m. Monday. He filmed them with his cellular phone.

"You could see them over Daniel Island making little circling patterns, and they were over the terminal and the (Wando) River, too," said Frank Heindel, a Charleston businessman who lives in Hobcaw Point subdivision.

Heindel said his son saw them a week earlier in the same general area.

"You don't hear it until it's right over you," Heindel said. "When you see the lights in the distance, you don't know how big it is. When it's over you, it has all these flashing lights. It's just a powerful, scary machine. It makes your hair stand on end."

From a distance, the hovering white light appears to be coming from a helicopter, he said. But when it gets closer, the aircraft is triangular in shape, he added.

Heindel's video shows one banking with lights flashing.

"These are not little bitty tinker-toy drones," he said. "They come in like an airplane and stop over the tree line and then drop straight down. I am not sure what these are and definitely do not know who is operating them. But we ought to know. They are definitely not a regular type of aircraft. They sort of look that way flying away to someone who hasn't been under it as it went overhead, but their behavior and sound is in no way like an airplane."

Charleston International Airport did not know of any unidentified aircraft operating in the area, but spokeswoman Becky Beaman said they are not allowed to fly close to an airport.

A spokesman at Charleston Air Force Base did not respond for comment.

Neither the Coast Guard nor the State Ports Authority had any reports of unidentified objects flying over Charleston Harbor or the Wando Welch Terminal.

Boeing South Carolina spokeswoman Candy Eslinger said she didn't know of any unmanned aircraft being tested by the aerospace giant in the Charleston area.

Boeing builds the 787 Dreamliner in North Charleston, but it does not make unmanned aircraft here.

The company does make drones elsewhere. There are limited areas where they can be tested, and none of them is close to South Carolina, according to Boeing spokeswoman Alison Sheridan in St. Louis.

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The FAA calls drones "unmanned aircraft systems" and warns against flying them in metropolitan areas.

"Flying a UAS over a heavily populated area might be considered a hazard to other aircraft or to people and property on the ground," FAA spokesman Les Dorr said. "The FAA has the authority to take enforcement action against such 'careless and reckless' operation."

Operators of such aircraft must notify the airport operator and the air traffic control tower if they plan to fly within 5 miles of an airport, according to FAA rules.

FAA officials declined to comment on the video, and spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said a lot of aircraft, including air ambulances, U.S. Coast Guard, military and general aviation flights, use the general area where the unidentified objects were spotted.

"They are not required to communicate with air traffic control over that area," she said.

The FAA would not immediately say if it had any records of unmanned aircraft flying in the Charleston area and required a request under the Freedom of Information Act. It has not responded.

Heindel said the objects that he saw disappeared west of Daniel Island.

Drones are most widely known for their use by the federal government for intelligence gathering. But the aircraft are increasingly being deployed by local law enforcement for such purposes as search-and-rescue missions to get to locations officers can't.