A helicopter pilot who reportedly took evasive action to avoid a drone clipped a tree with the helicopter’s tail and crash-landed, with no injuries, on Daniel Island Feb. 14. It may have been the first instance in which a drone has effectively brought down an aircraft, but it won’t be the last.
The accident came as no surprise to aviation interests, which have been warning about the likelihood of collisions.
Just a day before the accident, the trade group Airlines for America, the Air Line Pilots Association International and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association collectively called on Congress to undo legislation that limits the Federal Aviation Administration’s regulation of drones operated by hobbyists and recreational users.
“We strongly urge you to remove legislative restrictions that have been placed on the FAA that limit its safety oversight of UAS [Unmanned Aerial Systems]. The likelihood that a drone will collide with an airline aircraft is increasing.”
Indeed, drones pose a potentially deadly hazard. And with their increasing popularity, a more serious accident is bound to happen. A nearly 3-pound metal-and-plastic whirlybird like the one believed involved in the accident on Daniel Island could endanger an airliner if sucked into a jet engine.
Though the crash landing on Daniel Island may have been the first of its kind, drones and other aircraft have collided before. On Feb. 9, a helicopter pilot over the Hawaiian island of Kauai reported colliding with a drone, but the chopper sustained no significant damage and landed safely. In September in New York City, a helicopter and a drone collided near Staten Island, though the helicopter landed safely. And in 2015 in Los Angeles, the windshield of a helicopter like the one involved in the crash landing on Daniel Island was shattered by what was believed to be a drone.
Drone operators, who have to be at least 13, are required to register with the FAA and follow a set of rules that include keeping drones within sight, flying under 400 feet, avoiding manned aircraft and staying out of restricted airspaces around airports, military bases and other sensitive areas. Some municipalities such as Mount Pleasant have banned drones from city parks.
But apparently there’s nothing on the books to diminish the chance of the kind of low-altitude encounter reported on Daniel Island, which occurred over an unfinished subdivision. So far, the drone operator has not been identified.
Commercial aviation groups are understandably worried about the proliferation of recreational drones, and Congress should give the FAA the oversight authority it needs to rein in amateur operators before more accidents occur.