History was made and prophecies fulfilled last week when a quadcopter collided with a UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter over Staten Island in New York. According to the FAA, the event represents the first confirmed inflight collision between a drone and a piloted aircraft in the United States, although there have been other unconfirmed reports. The Black Hawk, which carried a crew of four, suffered light damage and landed safely. The drone was destroyed.
The damaged Black Hawk was one of two helicopters flying in formation around 7:30 pm on September 21 near Midland Beach. The incident occurred approximately 40 minutes after sunset, and the crew was not using night vision goggles as they flew at a reported altitude of 500 feet. The helicopters were providing security for a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, according to Army spokesman Lt. Col. Joe Buccino. Buccino said both aircraft are part of the 82nd Airborne Division based at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina.
Because the aircraft were involved in security operations, the Secret Service will lead the investigation of the incident, with the FAA and the New York Police Department assisting. The Army will also conduct its own investigation. The NYPD has not yet identified the drone pilot.
The helicopters were returning to Linden Airport in New Jersey, and were about seven miles from their destination when the collision occurred. The crew radioed air traffic control to say they had hit something, but did not declare an emergency. It wasn’t until they discovered quadcopter parts during their postflight inspection that the crew was sure they had hit a drone.
The quadcopter was shredded in the collision, resulting in damage to several areas of the helicopter. The Black Hawk was quickly repaired and returned to flight status, however. Buccino confirms that one rotor blade had to be replaced and that one of the Black Hawk’s doors had drone parts embedded in it. According to Buccino, approximately 50 percent of the drone was recovered, including at least one of its motors.
Video and photos from New York area TV stations offered clues as to the type of drone: a DJI Phantom 4 quadrotor, one of the most common consumer drones available. Asked whether they could confirm that the motor came from a Phantom 4, DJI referred Air & Space to a written statement saying that the firm is assisting the National Transportation Safety Board and the U.S. Army in the investigation.
While the NTSB considers the event an accident, the Army considers it a “mishap.” The FAA still hasn’t decided how to classify the event, because different rules can apply depending on the circumstances.
Mostly overlooked in the incident is another first of significance to researchers. The event marks the first opportunity to study drone impact dynamics with a manned aircraft under real-world conditions. “We’re already talking to the NTSB and others to collect as much data as we can so we can analyze it,” says David Arterburn, a former Army Black Hawk pilot who now heads the Rotorcraft Systems Engineering and Simulation Center at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. Arterburn says the collision could have been much worse for the Black Hawk. “The way the [drone] hit them...was in somewhat of a benign orientation. I think they got fortunate.” It appears the drone hit the left side of the aircraft and bounced up into the retreating blade, where it was struck again. If it had hit an advancing blade, it could have done major damage, says Arterburn. Even worse, it could have hit the windshield, or jammed up critical mechanisms that control the Black Hawk’s rotor. Arterburn says the Black Hawk, being a military helicopter, is built to withstand significant damage, and that a civilian helicopter would probably have faired much worse.
Pilots occasionally file reports claiming to have struck a drone, but such collisions don’t typically leave much evidence behind, as the small parts fall to the ground, and so have been impossible to confirm.