Aircrews warn drones could threaten aircraft over wildfires

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – The crews of aircraft fighting wildfires are worried.

The number of small unauthorized drones showing up over wildfires is increasing with each fire season.

With the increasing numbers comes an increasing risk of collision.

“They don’t show up well at all,” said U.S. Forest Service firefighting pilot Tom French. “Even if they’re brightly colored, they’re just so small.”

It is a violation of FAA regulations for drone enthusiasts to endanger manned aircraft anywhere – over fires, near airports or elsewhere. But the threat of arrest, jail and fines has not reduced the number of near collisions.

Neither has the easily accessible safety information published online by the FAA and the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA).

“It’s an awareness issue, I believe,” said French. “If I had a chance to talk with folks that do fly drones on fires, I would just explain it’s very dangerous to our crews.”

French said a collision with a drone could cause an aircraft to crash.

“On a fixed wing aircraft it can cause quite a bit of damage depending on where they hit. They can shut down an engine,” he said. “It’s even dangerous to our folks on the ground because we have to suspend operations.”

Across the country in 2016, air tankers and other firefighting aircraft were grounded at 20 wildfires because of unauthorized drones flying into fire areas.

“Sometimes we’re in a critical phase,” said French. “We’re putting retardant in front of occupied houses or other structures, and supporting crews.”

French said the suspension of aerial firefighting because of a drone might even cause area residents or firefighters on the ground to be overrun by flames, endangering lives on the surface.

The U.S. Forest Service is now urging drone users to avoid the skies near fires with its IF YOU FLY, WE CAN’T campaign.

Partly because of the intensity of the job and the busy cockpits, it is almost impossible for firefighting crews to spot a small drone in flight.

French’s plane guides in air tankers for their drops of retardant or water. He flies at little more than treetop level and does about 120 miles per hour. And there’s more to do inside the aircraft than manipulating the flight controls.

“Usually we’re monitoring four radios at a minimum,” said French. “We’re talking to crews on the ground. We’re talking to other aircraft.”

Wildfires are not just fought by Forest Service crews.

Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department pilot Sgt. Larry Koren flies the agency’s Metro 1 helicopter. Metro 1 and a sister aircraft, Metro 2, are regulars fighting wildfires in central New Mexico.

Like Forest Service crews, Koren and his colleagues are also concerned about the increasing numbers of drones over emergency scenes.

If a drone struck one of the main rotor blades on top of a copter, “the main rotor, although stout, could become unbalanced, and could cause a vibration that could basically tear the helicopter apart,” said Koren.

“It could be catastrophic to the point where the aircraft goes down and there could be fatalities,” he added.

Even airports are not immune to drone incursions.

The FAA reports a steadily growing number of unauthorized drones in the flight patterns of New Mexico airports.

One recently came within 10 feet of an airborne helicopter near Albuquerque’s Sunport.

“My advice to anybody who is buying a drone is to become familiar with it. Visiting the FAA website, getting some training — operate it in safe manner,” urged Koren.

“There’s people flying around in airplanes and helicopters – private operators, commercial operators, airliners, medical helicopters trying to get patients to the hospitals. So, there’s a lot of aircraft up above us, that people on the ground, somebody who’s a novice to aviation doesn’t realize.”

The FAA, AMA and many drone manufacturers sponsor a drone safety website, Know Before You Fly.” There is also a smartphone app called B4UFLY” with interactive maps of no-fly zones.

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