The NTSB final report on the September 21 collision between an Army UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter and a DJI Phantom 4 small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS/drone) is something of a cautionary tale regarding what not to do when flying a UAS. For the basic facts, the collision occurred near Hoffman Island, New York, at around 300 feet inside the area where a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) was in effect. The drone was destroyed and the helicopter sustained minor damage but landed safely. The NTSB was able to locate and interview the drone operator shortly after the incident.
That was where the problem really began to come clear. To start with, when it comes to flying drones or model aircraft (hobby and recreational), Part 101 requires that the operator keep visual contact with the aircraft and not interfere with other aircraft. In this case, according to the NTSB, the drone operator was 2.5 miles away at the time of the collision and, as per his own testimony, he had intentionally flown the Phantom 4 beyond where he could see it. He also admitted to knowing that helicopters regularly flew in the area. To follow it up, he stated he had no idea that there was a TFR in place—the app he was using had an airspace awareness function, but it wasn’t active. Even if it had been, the NTSB points out that such functionality is advisory only and doesn’t excuse the operator from the responsibility to comply with FAA airspace restrictions. To make matters worse the TFR specifically prohibited drone operations.
If that wasn’t enough, data showed that the drone was flown above 400 feet on an earlier flight that evening in spite of the operator’s statement that he knew the UAS should be operated below that altitude. And that’s not even getting into the night flight concerns, since the incident technically occurred two minutes before the end of civil twilight. Unsurprisingly, the official probable cause of the incident is “the failure of the sUAS pilot to see and avoid the helicopter due to his intentional flight beyond visual line of sight. Contributing to the incident was the sUAS pilot’s incomplete knowledge of the regulations and safe operating practices.”
Read the NTSB report.