Last week, on Daniel Island in South Carolina, a student and his instructor were enjoying an afternoon of flying their helicopter when something disrupted their vision. Small, white, and bouncing on the airwaves, they probably first identified the object as a bird.
Soon enough, however, the instructor recognized the formerly Unidentifiable-Flying-Object: it was a white DJI Phantom quad-copter drone that some poor, unsuspecting photographer had sent out on a calm Wednesday afternoon.
According to reports, the instructor acted on instinct. He seized the controls from the student’s hands and maneuvered the aircraft to avoid collision. The helicopter managed to miss the drone, but, thrown off-course, it still wasn’t in the clear.
As the helicopter pulled away from the drone, it’s tail clipped a tree. This caused it to lose control completely, and it crash-landed on it’s side. The student and the pilot escaped unscathed, but the helicopter was totaled. The drone has not been located, and, incidentally, neither has its’ owner.
This is the first incident reported in America in which a drone was the cause of an aircraft crash. As photographers who might want to experiment with the opportunities that drones offer us, it is important to keep this case in the back of our minds.
Before you take your drone out on an afternoon flight, make sure that you have your license. It costs only five dollars to register your drone with the Federal Aviation Administration, while if you’re caught flying without it, you could be charged up to $27,500 (probably more if your drone is the cause of an aircraft crash, just saying).
Second (and this is important) ensure that your drone is flying below four hundred feet, and is at least three miles away from an airport or landing strip. These are the official FAA regulations. But if that’s not enough to persuade you, remember that this could be an efficient way to avoid sending a helicopter into a tree.
This writer almost feels bad for the owner of the drone who caused the crash. Perhaps they just wanted a cool shot and got a little carried away. Or maybe they just weren’t paying attention and their drone got too close to the aircraft for comfort. But whatever the reason, you can be sure that if the instructor hadn’t spotted the drone on time, that little drone would have been done for.
Beyond that, the owner is lucky that his drone didn’t cause any worse damages than just to the Helicopter’s back-end. Otherwise, he and his drone could have ended up in a lot more trouble.
I apologize if this story has put fear in your heart for every time you want to take your drone out for a mid-afternoon flight. Just remember that as long as you use common sense and avoid aircraft zones, you and your drone should be just fine.