Washington, D.C., July 23, 2015…The American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) has called for severe penalties against those who fly drones, for any purpose, over areas where helicopters and air tankers are engaged in firefighting.
Drones operating in close proximity of two recent Southern California fires—the Lake Fire and the North Fire–briefly grounded some aerial firefighting operations on Friday, July 17, due to the risk of mid-air collisions with the aircraft working to suppress those fires. The result was loss of valuable response time, which may have led to increased destruction of property. This included the 20 vehicles trapped on the Interstate 15 freeway during the North Fire, which burned 4,250 acres in San Bernardino County. The same fire also destroyed seven homes, 16 outbuildings, and 44 vehicles in the nearby community of Baldy Mesa.
“The two fires presented a perfect illustration of how irresponsible use of drones in an active wildland fire environment can lead to preventable destruction of property.” said George Hill, AHSAFA’s Executive Director. “We believe that criminal charges should be pressed–and maximum penalties imposed–against anyone who interferes with aerial firefighting operations in any fashion. This includes the deployment of drones for hobby interests or news gathering. At the very least, it is time for the federal government and local law enforcement agencies to recognize the danger which drones pose to firefighting aircraft and pilots in the event of a wild land fire and make some attempt to regulate their use.”
Among those directly impacted by the drones was a CH-47D helicopter, owned by CHI Aviation, and working the Lake Fire.
“When our pilot, along with an air attack pilot, could not locate a previously spotted drone very close to the (water) dip site, they elected to abort the mission and our helicopter returned to base,” said Larry Kelley, CHI Aviation’s Director of Fire Operations. “That shut down operations on this fire for several hours until everyone was certain the drone was gone.”
Drones, Kelley explained, are often equipped with cameras for the sole purpose of capturing video images, which the owner could post on YouTube or sell to media outlets. “The biggest danger drones present is a midair collision, he noted. “If a drone were to impact the aircraft near an engine inlet, it could destroy the engine. An aircraft carrying 16,000 pounds of water on a routine water bucket mission could possibly crash before the pilot could jettison the water and get the aircraft back into single engine performance limitations.”
Kelley added that if a drone struck a main rotor blade, the results would also be catastrophic. “That is why the unauthorized penetration of Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFR’s)–or restricted airspace–by drones is something the FAA needs to really get a grip on. My suggestion would be to place an extremely hefty fine on the violators.”
Other aerial firefighting operators expressed similar views. Accord to Dan Snyder, Chief Operating Officer of Neptune Aviation Services in Missoula, Montana, “uncoordinated drone operations over a fire environment” present significant risks to aerial firefighters and their aircraft.
“The damage that even a small drone could cause in a midair collision could mean loss of the aircraft, and the lives of the aircrew, depending on where the aircraft is hit,” he stressed. “Due to the safety concerns of uncoordinated drones, fire agencies will have to take necessary precautions, which could significantly impact the timeliness of aerial resources deployment on the fire.” Neptune Aviation had a BAe 146, and a P2V Neptune tanker on the North Fire, but both aircraft went on duty after the drone issue was resolved.
Dan Sweet, Public Relations Manager for Columbia Helicopters in Portland, Oregon believes that drone operators “are acting carelessly and selfishly,” putting their interests above that of the public. “No video or photo is worth the lives of a flight crew, the lives of firefighters on the ground, or additional property damaged because aircraft are forced to stop attacking the fire,” he remarked.
Along this line, Drew Njirich, owner of Intermountain Helicopter in Sonora, California, points out that there is “no liability or risk to drone operators,” and, currently, “no way to come back to them,” if they cause an accident. “You can buy (drones) on Amazon, and they are not registered to any person or authority,” he explained. “Until drone operators have a sense of responsibility, it’s only a matter of time before they kill someone.”
CHI Aviation, Columbia Helicopters, Intermountain Helicopter, and Neptune Aviation Services are all members of AHSAFA, the Washington-based trade association representing the privately operated aerial firefighting industry before Congress, the US Forest Service, and other agencies tasked with responsibility for federal wild land and natural resources protection.