Thursday, August 17, 2017

Incident occurred August 16, 2017 near Lawrence Municipal Airport (KLWM), North Andover, Essex County, Massachusetts

Newburyport-bound police helicopter, drone nearly collide: Massachusetts State Police seek public's help identifying drone operator

NORTH ANDOVER — A state police helicopter came within seconds of colliding with a drone in the vicinity of Lawrence Municipal Airport on Wednesday morning, according to officials.

The helicopter was flying a training mission from Holliston to Newburyport when it passed through the air space of the Lawrence airport about 11:20 a.m., according to state police. 

While flying at 600 feet, the helicopter’s crew saw what they described as a large drone approach them from the side, flying toward the front of the helicopter.

The drone came within 100 feet of the helicopter, which was flying at about 120 mph.

“It flew across the front of the windshield of the helicopter, they thought it was a bird initially until they came right up on it,” said Maj. Richard Prior, special operations commander with Massachusetts State Police. “The drone itself did drop out from under them, so I’m sure the pilot of the drone saw — you have to observe the helicopter, it’s only 100 feet away — but the helicopter was forced to take evasive action to avoid collision.”

The pilot banked a “hard left” to avoid impact, while the drone had already begun to drop out of the way of the helicopter.

“It’s an awakening moment,” said Russell Phippen, a tactical flight officer and trooper who was on board.

He described the drone as a black and white quad-copter drone, approximately two to three feet long, hovering in the air.

The crew reversed direction and searched for the person who was flying the drone but did not locate anyone, police said. State police cruisers also responded to the area and did not find anyone. The flight crew landed safely back at the Lawrence base.

It is against the law for private drone pilots to fly their craft within five miles of an airport, or to fly at an altitude greater than 400 feet. Private drones heavier than 0.55 pounds must be registered with the Federal Aviation Administration.

Lawrence Municipal Airport manager Michael Miller said drone operation is a concern for anyone involved in aviation, especially around the operation of an airport.

Miller said for the most part, people have been complying with laws that require hobbyist drone operators to inform airports if they plan to fly in an airport’s airspace.

“If you’re within five miles, as a hobbyist recreational, you have to contact the air traffic control tower, and people have been doing that,” Miller said. “They call us when they’re launching, tell us the duration of the flight, and they call us when it has been recovered.”

The operator Wednesday did not notify either the FAA or the Lawrence Municipal Airport of its flight plans, according to Prior.

If the drone had made contact with the helicopter, the windshield would have likely broken and impacted the crew.

“The wind screens ... they’re not like a car windshield that has two pieces of glass with a piece of plastic in the middle,” Phippen said. “That’s a very thin piece of plastic that can break just by dropping something two feet away. A drone, while we’re going at 120 miles an hour, would have come right through the screen.”

Prior said state police obtained helmets with protective masks about a year ago for helicopter crews to use that mitigate the impact of a stray bird.

“In theory, if a bird flies in, with them wearing the mask, it makes them at least be able to fly if the aircraft is still intact,” said Prior. “But a bird’s about a quarter-pound or less,” and the drone that nearly collided with the helicopter on Wednesday was about two pounds. The officers were not wearing the masks Wednesday, as they are usually only used when the doors of the helicopter are open during flight.

Prior said drones can be useful and fun machines if used properly.

“If you’re a recreational user of a drone, have at it. We think they’re a great tool,” Prior said. “We ask people before you take one out, be aware of how high you can go, be aware of your surroundings, check with the FAA.”

The investigation of the incident is ongoing, and Prior advised anyone with information about the drone operator to contact state police in Danvers. Their phone number is 978-538-6020.

Original article ➤

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