NTSB: ‘All available evidence’ shows Helinet mid-air collision was with drone

A Helinet Aviation Airbus AS350 B2 AStar that was struck by an object while flying near downtown Los Angeles was likely hit by a drone, according to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB’s) final report into the incident.

Helinet operates the Airbus AS350 B2 on electronic newsgathering operations for ABC7 News. Skip Robinson Photo
Helinet operates the Airbus AS350 B2 on electronic news gathering operations for ABC7 News. Skip Robinson Photo
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None of the three people on board the helicopter were injured, with the pilot making a precautionary landing soon after hearing what he thought might be a bird striking the aircraft.

The collision happened at 7:15 p.m. on Dec. 4, 2019, as the helicopter was performing an electronic news gathering flight for ABC7 News. Known by the station as Air7 HD, it was flying under visual flight rules (VFR) at about 1,100 feet above mean sea level (830 feet above ground level) within Class G airspace at the time – well above the 400 feet above ground level maximum for small drones.

A popular drone is shown against the damaged stabilizer to illustrate its size against the impact marks. NTSB Photo
A popular drone is shown against the damaged stabilizer to illustrate its size against the impact marks. NTSB Image

While a provision in the regulations governing small drone use (14 CFR part 107) does allow for operating them above 400 feet if the drone is within 400 feet of a tall structure, downtown Los Angeles was about ¼ mile away from the collision site.

The regulations also forbid operating drones at night, unless the operator has secured a waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to do so.

The Helinet aircraft was moving between story locations at the time of the collision, and was cruising at between 100 and 110 knots. The pilot told the NTSB he didn’t see anything prior to hearing a loud noise as the object hit the aircraft.

Tests showed traces of a polymer commonly used in drone construction among the damaged areas. NTSB Photo
Tests showed traces of a polymer commonly used in drone construction among the damaged areas. NTSB Photo

The Los Angeles Police Department searched the area around the incident after the helicopter had landed, but couldn’t find a drone.

The object had struck the aircraft’s horizontal stabilizer and tail rotor blade, puncturing and leaving scuff marks along the leading edge of the stabilizer, and leaving a small gouge in the composite surface of one of the tail rotor blades.

The NTSB said laboratory examinations indicated the shape and dimension of the small round dent to the horizontal stabilizer matched the dimensions of “many popular small drones,” and were consistent with a fore-to-aft impact with a “hard cylindrical object.”

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An infrared examination also showed traces of a type of plastic that is commonly used in small drones.

One of the aircraft's tail rotor blades suffered gauging in its composite surface. NTSB Photo
One of the aircraft’s tail rotor blades suffered gouging in its composite surface. NTSB Photo

Lab tests that simulated a collision between the horizontal stabilizer and a small drone showed a similar pattern of damage to the stabilizer.

“Although no drone was located, preventing complete certainty, all the available evidence was consistent with a collision with a small UAS,” the NTSB said.

In its report, the NTSB noted that it has now completed three investigations where a collision with a drone has been confirmed, and gathered information on two other collisions where the evidence is consistent with a drone strike. As yet, no collisions of this type have resulted in substantial damage or injuries.

9 thoughts on “NTSB: ‘All available evidence’ shows Helinet mid-air collision was with drone

  1. The magic words here are “As yet no collisions of this type have resulted in substantial damage or injuries.”
    The professional pilot now has to share the airspace with the ever increasing population of the clueless or the careless sUAS operator.

  2. I stand with Mike on this one. “As yet” is the magic phrase.

    Also,”UAV” is an unfortunately inaccurate acronym for drones. The correct acronym should be “FOD.”

  3. The FAA regulations do allow hobby pilots to fly at night. It does not require them to have an LED anti-collision beacon as required for Part 107 operators who need to operate with a 107.29 waiver.

    The difference between what is allowed for a hobby flight and a commercial flight should be the same. After all, it is the same national airspace with the same potential for coming in contact with manned aircraft.

  4. As a drone hobbyist, I completely agree with Roger Rosenbaum’s assertion that there should be no distinction between requirements for commercial UAS operators and hobbyists when operating at night. When I fly starting at dusk, I always fly with 5 separate strobes capable of being seen for 3 miles. It is the least I can do for any human being potentially sharing the same airspace as me. Unfortunately, there are too many clueless and selfish drone pilots that fly on the “big sky” premise.

  5. That’s a false and poorly reasoned statement. A part 107 certificate holder trains and is tested for his knowledge as to safe and proper operation of an UAS. Of course they should afford more latitude as to governing regulations. When hobbyists lay out 150.00 per two years and have to pass the 107 test then and only then should they be allowed any of the same privileges!

  6. Hobby pilots have been safely sharing airspace with full size aircraft for over 50 years. Many of them have invested thousands of hours of their time and tens of thousands of dollars of their money into their aircraft and that’s really all the incentive they need to fly them safely. But when all you now need is a few hundred dollars to buy a ready made and pretty much autonomous flying machine that can be operated out of sight of the operator and which requires no special skills to operate, well anyone and his dog can fly one of those things. Passing a multiple choice test and paying $150 for a piece of paper that says I’m licensed does not make that any safer.

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