After many closes calls and inconclusive reports, a new incident involving a small hobby drone and two military Black Hawk helicopters might mark one the first drone to aircraft collision. Unlike many previous cases, this incident seemed to have left direct evidence. Army Lieutenant Colonel Joe Buccino, the spokesman for the 82nd Airborne, said that a civilian drone “struck on the left side of fuselage. There were no adverse impacts to the flight.” He added that “one blade was damaged [and] dented in two spots and requires replacement and there is a dented window.” Here is what we know.
Manned Aircraft Involved
The piloted aircraft involved in the incident are two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. This 10 tons class twin-engine cargo copter is one of the workhorse of the U.S. armed forces since the 80s. This Jeep of the air is mainly used for airlift missions such as tactical transport, search and rescue, and medical evacuation. A modified stealth version of the Black Hawk was used in the 2011 raid by the Navy Seals to approach the Osama bin Laden compound and killed the most wanted man on earth. Even though the Black Hawk can carry light armament for auto-protection such as machine guns and rockets, the UH-60 is not an attack rotorcraft like the AH-64 Apache or AH-1 Cobra. Unlike these combat helicopters, the Black Hawk is not heavily protected by bulletproof windows or armored plates.
The two Black Hawks were part of 82nd Airborne Division. The facts that the two helicopters have been affected by the drone collision may suggest of a formation flight. The U.S. Army aircraft were in New York City for the United Nations General Assembly this week.
Reporter Tom Kaminski from WCBS 880 was able to take a look at the damage. He said that “as that drone came apart, a piece of it was actually found upon landing up on the transmission deck, right at the bottom of the main rotor system.”
The incident allegedly took place along the east shore of Midland Beach in Staten Island, New York. The area just falls outside the five miles radius of Newark Airport. It is also located under the Class B airspace which begins at 1,500 feet above ground level.
According the New York Post, the collision occurred at 8:15 p.m. on Thursday, September 21. This timing suggest that the drone pilot was flying at night which is against the FAA regulation for commercial operation under Part 107 (unless the operator obtains a waiver). However night flights are not expressly forbidden for recreational drone users equipped with adequate lighting system. The area is currently filled with Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFR) due to VIP traffic but I was not able to consult the history of active TFR at that time in this location.
First reports mentioned that the Black Hawks helicopters were flying at 500 feet. The maximum altitude above ground level for drone flight is set to 400 feet by the FAA regulation.
I was not able to collect firsthand information from the U.S. Army but the collision seems to be well documented with an official confirmation and drone parts collected from the helicopters. However, history showed us that many drone incidents were inaccurately reported and didn’t prove real after a serious investigation was conducted. Despite plethora of forums and Facebook experts, I would wait for further official elements from the U.S. Army and the NTSB before making a final conclusion. As the astronaut Neil Armstrong said during the 1986 Challenger accident investigation: "The first impression is usually wrong."