back to article Helicopter crashes after manoeuvres to 'avoid... DJI Phantom drone'

A helicopter has crashed after reportedly manoeuvring hard to avoid a "DJI Phantom quadcopter," in what could be the first confirmed aircraft accident involving a drone. The crash was first reported this week by telly station Live 5 News, in South Carolina, USA, which saw a copy of a police report stating that a Robinson R22 …

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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Pink Unicorn?

    I crashed the helicopter whilst trying to avoid the pink unicorn galloping towards me, and not, not you understand, because I forgot where my tail-rotor was.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Pink Unicorn?

      It's unclear how the handover of control from the student to the instructor was performed1 but It sounds as though the instructor may have panicked a bit; he certainly tried to execute a maneuver that was unsafe, given the close proximity to the ground.

      As the closing speeds between heli & drone would have been relatively low, it would have been safer to let the drone collide with the heli than to try to avoid it, especially when you consider that the drone would have had to get through the downwash from the heli's rotor before striking it, and even if it did then I suspect that the most damage the drone would have caused would have been some cracked plexiglass (that's if the downwash hadn't blown the drone into or below the skids).

      1If control was not clearly handed over then there would have been a short period of time when neither the instructor nor the student were in control.

      1. Morten_T

        Re: Pink Unicorn?

        SmarterEveryDay flew that exact model helicopter (R22) and it's larger cousin R44 with an instructor in this video:

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eXR1olg_I0w

        There's some good footage showing how handover happens. Seems to me the instructor can be in control in a matter of seconds when/if needed.

        1. Steve Evans

          Re: Pink Unicorn?

          There's some good footage showing how handover happens. Seems to me the instructor can be in control in a matter of seconds when/if needed.

          Yes, but how many seconds do you have when your tail is near a tree and you're only a few feet from the ground practicing a hover?

        2. Unoriginal Handle

          Re: Pink Unicorn?

          There are times - hopefully very rare - when either the handover doesn't happen in the right way, or it needs to happen VERY quickly. I'd suggest that this incident falls into the latter category - instructor thinks he's under threat, reacts, ends up with no tail rotor.

      2. Stevie Silver badge

        Re: It's unclear how the handover of control from the student to the instructor was performed

        Small helicopters have a double yoke. Each person in cockpit can easily reach and share the cyclic stick.

        They also have doubled pedals, just as a dual control car does, so taking control of the tail rotor is a non-issue, basically informing the student "my aircraft".

        The collective pitch control typically resembles an old-fashioned handbrake lever and sits between the seats.

        So no real issue at all unless the student screams "NO! *MY* aircraft" and initiates a pissing match.

    2. The Man Who Fell To Earth Silver badge
      Black Helicopters

      Re: Pink Unicorn?

      Bottom line is aircraft owners probably need to outfit their aircraft with cameras recording everything in every direction around the aircraft (all 4 pi steradians), just to deal with all climate change drone deniers.

      1. martinusher Silver badge

        Re: Pink Unicorn?

        Thanks to some actual tests on aircraft components we know that the amount of damage a quadcopter can cause is quite limited, its certainly no worse than hitting a bird.

        Its difficult to regulate stupidity but fortunately modern quadcopters are equipped with multiple cameras that are used for collision avoidance. (Look up the latest DJI product -- its tiny, under the FAA weight limit for registration, and is verging on the intelligent.) We can only hope that helicopters will gradually get similarly sophisticated avionics as these inexpensive consumer products.

        1. The Man Who Fell To Earth Silver badge
          FAIL

          Re: Pink Unicorn?

          "...its certainly no worse than hitting a bird."

          Clearly you aren't qualified to do more than sweep floors. By 2009, birds strikes caused $600M in damage per year. According to the FAA, about 500 planes were damaged by collisions with birds from 2000-2009, and 166 of those planes had to make emergency landings such as the one in the Hudson river in 2009. The worst U.S. plane crash blamed on birds came on April 10, 1960, when an Eastern Airlines aircraft crashed into Boston Harbor, killing 62 passengers. So yes a drone being "certainly no worse than hitting a bird" is a f*cking big deal.

          Idiot.

          1. waitaminute

            Re: Pink Unicorn?

            Those bird strikes were likely caused by 10 to 20 pound Geese or similar sized birds and the Aircraft were at speeds of 180 to 500 mph. When a half pound drone hits a hovering Helicopter maybe doing 40 mph , if that (hover taxi maneuvering over rough ground ) , then yes, not much should have been expected. Imagine a slow hovering Helicopter close to rough ground practicing a TAXI maneuver and a drone is spotted-his move is to take over? Drones dont move that fast. Something doesn't add up. You sling a lot of stats around...too bad they had no bearing on this case. Whose the idiot now ?

            1. SkippyBing Silver badge

              Re: Pink Unicorn?

              'When a half pound drone hits a hovering Helicopter maybe doing 40 mph , if that (hover taxi maneuvering over rough ground ) , then yes, not much should have been expected.'

              How fast do you think the rotor blades are going at this point?

            2. Stevie Silver badge

              Re: Drones dont move that fast.

              Neither do dogs, deer, cats and squirrels, but they result in hundreds of car crashes every year.

              Pilots are trained to AVOID collisions with anything, not just grit their teeth and see what happens.

              It's a matter of training and reflex and thank Sikorsky for that. I don't want to be an a plane or helicopter driven by someone who wants to experiment.

              Also, FYI Canada Goose (the most prevalent on the East Coast of the USA) typically masses more like 8.5 pounds. A twenty pound Canada Goose would not likely be in a position to collide with a helicopter, though it might threaten a Segway.

        2. MachDiamond Silver badge

          Re: Pink Unicorn?

          "Thanks to some actual tests on aircraft components we know that the amount of damage a quadcopter can cause is quite limited, its certainly no worse than hitting a bird.'

          If a DJI Phantom hits a rotor blade and leaves any sort of damage, that requires a new and very expensive rotor blade. The "bird" comparison is a cop out. Birds are a big problem too, but there is no comparison. The drone incidents are avoidable where birds are not.

          1. Alan Brown Silver badge

            Re: Pink Unicorn?

            "If a DJI Phantom hits a rotor blade and leaves any sort of damage, that requires a new and very expensive rotor blade."

            Which is _STILL_ cheaper than having to replace the rotor, gearboxes, tail, landing gear and crush seats after a rollover crash and you'll have evidence that it was actually a drone and not a plastic shopping bag caught in a wind gust.

            I mention that specifically because of the case at Heathrow of a "dronestrike" which turned out to be exactly that - a plastic shopping bag which was still wrapped over the nose on inspection

            Instructors aren't million-hour gods. In the case of light aircraft and helicoptors they're usually people with a few hundred hours under their belts working up to a commercial seat and when I was learning I had a couple allow me to make quite boneheaded procedural errors without them noticing it (busting height limits against an incoming civil transport and not squawking in military airspace. Minor, but should have been picked up on in the checklists.)

            A quadcoptor drone flown into a helicoptor (even a R22) will be tossed into the ground _hard_ by the downwash if it gets that close - the outwash donut from the rotor disc in ground effect will probably flip it long before it gets near.

      2. ravenviz Silver badge

        Re: Pink Unicorn?

        No, bottom line is people stop flying drones near anything else also flying.

    3. DroneSmarter

      Re: Pink Unicorn?

      Fact: UFO reports are down by pilots.

      Fact: pilots would rather report a drone than UFO

      1. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: Pink Unicorn?

        Fact: UFO reports are down by pilots.

        So are bird reports.

        In fact at Heathrow (along with most other airports) there's a near linear relationship between the decrease in bird sightings and the increase in drone sightings.

        Never mind that the airspace around airports is heavily surveilled and anything with weather radar looking for microbursts is going to see drones lit up like christmas trees thanks to both their metal content and the doppler effects of the rotors.

  2. ForthIsNotDead Silver badge

    It's time...

    It's time to do something out these pricks that deliberately fly drones close to aircraft. It's happening weekly at Heathrow.

    Jammers might do it. Make the fucking things drop out of the sky.

    1. Alister Silver badge

      Re: It's time...

      It's happening weekly at Heathrow.

      Would you care to provide some sort of evidence for that assertion? Or shall we add it to the pink unicorn tally mentioned by A/C above.

      1. Lee D Silver badge

        Re: It's time...

        Not the OP but he may be right:

        https://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/pilots-welcome-government-crackdown-on-drones-after-spike-in-near-misses-at-heathrow-and-gatwick-a3594886.html

        "The number of drone incidents involving Heathrow planes nearly quadrupled from seven in 2015 to 26 last year (Note: The article date means this refers to 2016!), according to reports by the UK Airprox Board."

        That's one every two weeks at Heathrow alone just 2 years ago, after previously quadrupling. Nothing to suggest that the trend can't have extended to one every week at Heathrow alone.

        1. Richard 12 Silver badge

          Re: It's time...

          You're assuming that every one of those unconfirmed sightings was both genuinely an object*, and was a drone**.

          * And not a reflection, refraction, cloud, star, planet, or some other confusing visual phenomena that used to be reported as a "UFO".

          ** And not a balloon, carrier bag etc

          If a pilot sees a weird thing these days, is it more likely that they'll report it as a "drone sighting" or a UFO?

        2. Alan Brown Silver badge

          Re: It's time...

          "The number of drone incidents involving Heathrow planes nearly quadrupled from seven in 2015 to 26 last year (Note: The article date means this refers to 2016!), according to reports by the UK Airprox Board."

          Now go back and compare with the number of bird reports over the same period.

      2. Brenda McViking

        Re: It's time...

        Not quite weekly, however, incidents such as this are reported to the UK Airprox board, which has seen an exponential increase of such reports relating to drones. 2015: 29. 2016: 71. 81 incidents from Jan to Sept 2017 alone. Want some actual evidence rather than hyperbole? Here: Airprox Drone statistics;

        All Airprox Statistics

        It is an issue - it was a matter of time before an accident resulted, and unless something is done to mitigate this risk it will happen again.

    2. stu 4

      Re: It's time...

      bullshit.

      you know nothing from this. a helicopter can fly a damn site faster and longer than a legally flown drone. why assume it's the drone pilots fault ? He could have been flying in a field quite legally at a couple of hundred feet, and then next moment a helicopter flies through for all you know.

      weekly at heathrow.... I can smell the shite from here.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: It's time...

        "...and then next moment a helicopter flies through for all you know"

        The big difference there is that the helicopter will be flying at a safe altitude and following a logged flight plan and communicating with air traffic control, where as the drone is just flying wherever its operator feels like it, so nobody but the operator knows its there.

        1. Alister Silver badge

          Re: It's time...

          The helicopter in question was at 50ft and practising ground hover taxiing, are you suggesting that it had filed a Flight Plan for that?

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: It's time...

            > 50ft and practising ground hover

            And near enough to trees that it could hit them. That's some good flying there, Bub.

            1. Tom 64

              Re: It's time...

              My suspicion is that this is a case of instructor covering for his dumbass student. There may not have been a drone at all

              1. Mark 65 Silver badge

                Re: It's time...

                Have to agree with other posters mentioning instructor/student error. Training in close proximity to any trees is no-no so someone really fucked up here and the drone story is a classic arse-cover.

        2. Chrissy

          Re: It's time...

          "The big difference there is that the helicopter will be flying at a safe altitude and following a logged flight plan and communicating with air traffic control":

          On the assumption that this was Class G airspace, the Heli driver doesn't have to be "communicating with air traffic control".

          And if his tail boom was able to strike a - "small" - tree and he was doing an instruction outside of the home ATZ, then he wasn't "flying at a safe altitude" nor was following a logged flight plan... unless you think radioning "Tower, we'll be over there somewhere" constiutes "a logged flight plan".

          Under UK ANOs (which tend to mirror JAA rules), IF the drone pilot was under 400ft and outside an ATZ - as the heli being near "a small tree" would indicate, as there aren't many small trees inside airfields or hovering at 400 AGL - then the drone pilot was doing nothing wrong.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: It's time...

            The pilot of the heli should have stayed put. Likely, the operator of the 'drone*' would have eventually seen the heli and flown it away. If the 'drone*' did make contact with the rotors, it would have been pinged off and destroyed, and the heli would have continued as if nothing had happened. Taking evasive action, and in turn crashing into a 'small tree', is what caused the crash here.

            * if there was indeed a drone there at all

            1. werdsmith Silver badge

              Re: It's time...

              "it would have been pinged off and destroyed, and the heli would have continued as if nothing had happened."

              A chunk knocked off of one of the rotors would have unbalanced them and set off a very uncomfortable vibration which might cause further damage. The cost of replacing and balancing a main rotor is many thousands.

              A drone would have to come to contact with the rotor from above though, as it wouldn't get past the downwash any other way.

              Most drone / aircraft encounter stories do seem a bit fanciful though.

              1. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                Re: The cost of replacing and balancing a main rotor...

                The cost of replacing an entire helicopter is many thousands more!

            2. SkippyBing Silver badge

              Re: It's time...

              'it would have been pinged off and destroyed, and the heli would have continued as if nothing had happened'

              Probably not, rotor blades aren't that strong, otherwise they'd be too heavy. I'm not saying it would be catastrophic but you'd certainly want to land immediately and get an engineer to check things out. If it hit the tail rotor it's probably more likely the blade would suffer structural failure which can get interesting.

              1. JassMan Silver badge
                Thumb Down

                Re: It's time... @SkippyBing

                They may be stronger than you think... See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-zI_VpTFp8 which shows almost the same chopper flying into a powerline which, having a high tensile steel core would do much more damage than a bit of plastic with very small motors attached.

                1. SkippyBing Silver badge

                  Re: It's time... @SkippyBing

                  'They may be stronger than you think... See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-zI_VpTFp8 which shows almost the same chopper flying into a powerline which'

                  The R-44 in the video has more substantial rotor blades than the R-22, which would be nice but they're on about the 8th modification state and they still have problems with them coming apart. It's also worth noting that they're unlikely to take-off again in that aircraft until they've had the blades replaced, unless they've got a death wish.

                  Report here of a similar incident with photos of the damage: http://www.aaiu.ie/sites/default/files/report-attachments/REPORT%202017-014.pdf those dents will have substantially weakened the blades which are basically an aluminium skin around a spar and honeycomb structure.

                  I have flown the R-44 which is about the least robust helicopter I'd like to fly in on purpose.

              2. KSM-AZ

                Re: It's time...

                Bullshit. My old man flew those things when getting shot at. He's got a picture of one he flew back with a pretty damn big hole in it. Scary, maybe a 30mm round, hard to tell from the pic. Pop didn't notice, mechanic showed it to him. I've seen a drone disentigrate tapping a clothes line. Average drone hits a chopper blade I'm not sure if you'd even notice. Drone would be obliterated. You act like they make helicopter blades out of tissue paper or something.

                That being said they should outlaw drones, for myriad other reasons.

                1. SkippyBing Silver badge

                  Re: It's time...

                  'My old man flew those things when getting shot at. He's got a picture of one he flew back with a pretty damn big hole in it.'

                  He was shot at in an R-22? If it was something like a Huey (Bell 205) then I'd have no problem believing that, they have big solid blades with something like the outer third containing a bronze lump to give the rotors plenty of inertia in case the engine failed. To spin this around the Bell has a 1100 horse power engine. The R-22 is basically built of tin foil and has a very light weight rotor system with virtually no inertia, because of this it's one of the few helicopters the FAA requires additional training for auto-rotations in. It has a mighty 124 hp to spin things around and you can't even start the engine connected to the transmission.

                  So you'd definitely notice a Phantom sized drone hitting the rotors, and it'd probably leave marks. The problem is you then have no idea what has happened to the internal structure, which is so reassuringly solid part of the pre-flight checks are to tap the blades with a coin to see if there's a change of noise to indicate de-lamination is taking place.

                  Disclaimer, I've flown the R-22 and the Bell 206 which shares its elder brothers robust rotor system.

            3. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

              Re: It's time...

              "The pilot of the heli should have stayed put. Likely, the operator of the 'drone*' would have eventually seen the heli and flown it away."

              Unless it was Blue Thunder or Airwolf in whisper mode, anyone within a mile should have well aware there was a helicopter flying very low to the ground. They're not exactly quiet, and the drone operator is supposed to be in line of sight. Whether there really was a drone and/or who was at fault is far from clear yet, but it sounds like the helicopter instructor picked a very poor place for practising hover taxiing if they managed to hit a tree and the drone operator should have been very aware of the helicopter being there.

        3. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: It's time...

          "the helicopter will be flying at a safe altitude and following a logged flight plan "

          Wrong, in the UK general aviation (GA) do not need flight a plan, or even a radio to talk to ATC. All they need to do is stay clear of controlled airspace, which for most GA means keeping clear of major airports.

          1. Alister Silver badge

            Re: It's time...

            To be fair, the incident happened in America, not the UK

    3. Joe Werner

      Re: It's time...

      Fire.

      Burn them.

      And the drones.

      (or at least try them for manslaughter)

    4. EricM

      Re: Jammers might do it ...

      Operate jammers near an airport? This _might_ have some uninteded consequences...

    5. JeffyPoooh Silver badge
      Pint

      Re: It's time...

      YesForthIsQuiteNice suggested: "It's time to do something [about] these pricks that deliberately fly drones close to aircraft. It's happening weekly at Heathrow. Jammers might do it. Make the fucking things drop out of the sky."

      It's time to do something about those pricks that deliberately operate radio jammers close to airports and aircraft. It's happening weekly at Heathrow. Maybe attack drones could be used. Make the fucking pricks drop their radio jammers when attacked by our drones.

  3. tiggity Silver badge

    Dash cam equivalents

    For aircraft might be useful.

  4. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge

    NEW LAW: all drones sold must be sold neon pink.

    1. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

      Well, why not. Other aircraft are required to have navigation lights & some are required to have ID transponders.

      1. Joe Werner

        And gliders in the Alps were supposed to have coloured wing tip stripes (a few decades back...)

        1. Adam 52 Silver badge

          ... until it was discovered that the coloured markings broke up the aircraft outline and acted like camouflage, making aircraft harder to spot.

  5. JeffyPoooh Silver badge
    Pint

    "...crashing a helicopter is a very expensive business..."

    Well, the Robinson R22 is 'only' around US$270k for a whole brand new one (assuming Wiki is accurate). So if you're planning to crash a helicopter, that's about as cheap a choice as it could get.

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