RENO (AP) — The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating a near-miss between a hobby drone and a sheriff’s helicopter in Reno during an aerial attack on a wind-whipped brush fire that was threatening dozens of homes on the edge of the Sierra.
“We were about 400 feet off the ground and it went zipping right underneath us,” said Doug Russell, a Washoe County sheriff’s deputy who is the chief pilot of the regional law enforcement helicopter.
“It was my first close encounter of the drone kind,” he told The Associated Press.
The HH-1H Huey had just completed a final water drop about 8 p.m. Wednesday when Russell said his co-pilot spotted the drone passing about 50 feet beneath the helicopter’s nose.
Any such sighting automatically suspends all aerial firefighting operations.
Russell said he pulled up, circling, then followed the drone and directed deputies on the ground to its operators in a city park not far from the fire on the edge of southwest Reno.
Washoe County sheriff’s spokesman Bob Harmon said they reported the “near-miss” to the FAA after they warned the “two people who appeared to be hobbyists” about the dangers but issued no citations.
“They were trying to get some video of the fire and apparently were ignorant of the many rules, guidelines and restrictions involving drones,” Harmon said.
FAA spokesman Ian Gregor confirmed Thursday night that the agency received the report and is reviewing the incident.
“We are working to get the name of the drone operator. When we do, we will contact the person and meet with him,” Gregor said in an email to AP. “I can’t say what the outcome of the case will be.”
Russell said the forced grounding of aircraft is just one of the potential hazards drones can pose for firefighting operations.
“It might not sound like a big deal, but when you are fighting a fast-moving, 300-acre fire, it could put firefighters’ lives in jeopardy,” Russell said. “And if I take that through the windscreen, it kills me.”
Harmon said it was the first time the Regional Aviation Enforcement Unit’s helicopter named “RAVEN” has encountered a drone.
“It’s a new and emerging technology and hobby. At this point it’s better to try to educate than arrest,” Harmon said.
“The most important thing is to make sure people understand it can very easily turn into a matter of life or death. Even a small drone, if it hits a helicopter with rotors going 90 mph, it’s like a bullet hitting the thing,” he said.
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