Drone's Close Call With Helicopter Rattles Pilots

By Willard Shepard
|  Thursday, Jul 17, 2014  |  Updated 10:52 AM CDT
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Close call -- a drone and helicopter almost collide in South Florida with a crowd below. See the near miss that rattled pilots. NBC 6's Willard Shepard reports.

Close call -- a drone and helicopter almost collide in South Florida with a crowd below. See the near miss that rattled pilots. NBC 6's Willard Shepard reports.

Helicopter pilot Paul Barth and his camera operator saw a brightly colored object in the South Florida sky with them just before sunrise.

"I didn’t know what it was when I first saw it," Barth said.

They saw the object while they were airborne to document the Wings for Life World Run charity race in May. Barth told NBC 6 he was worried the flying object would hit them.

“We were on a collision course," Barth said. “It was some kind of a drone, and it was approaching us at a high rate of speed.”

Down below were the athletes and support staff participating in the run to raise money for those with spinal cord injuries.

“It came right at us and went right underneath us," Barth said. "If that drone had hit my tail rotor and taken me down, I would have come down on 2,000 people in the street.“

What happened, Barth said, is an example of the growing conflict in the sky between airplanes, helicopters and what many are flying for fun — drones.

Jeffrey Civitano, who was operating the unmanned aircraft, said he was also worried.

"The full-sized helicopter turned towards me and made a bee line for a direct intercept course for my location," he said.

Civitano also holds a commercial pilot's license from the Federal Aviation Administration and said he did his best to keep his unmanned aircraft out of the helicopter’s flight path, but said Barth followed his drone.

“My objective was to yield the right of way to him as a full-sized aircraft and to get back on the ground as quickly and safely as possible. He made that difficult, I would say,” Civitano told NBC 6.

Down on the ground, runner Madeline Proano was oblivious to the potential for a catastrophe to unfold above her.

"No signs, no clue," she said.

But she said she did remember the helicopter.

"It was hovering over the area," she recalled.

Barth and Civitano both contacted the FAA, and Sunrise Police investigated too.

Florida is one of the top spots in the U.S. for flying — only Texas and California have more aircraft registered. And therefore, aviation experts say it’s also is the perfect place to see what the FAA is now officially calling an “unmanned aircraft system” take to the sky.

“Regulation as it pertains to drones is like the Wild Wild West in the United States," said Ft. Lauderdale aviation attorney Jonathan Ewing. He said while the FAA tightly regulates drones companies would use for business purposes, a person flying one just for fun has little restriction.

“In essence, you have floating land mines in the way of commercial aircraft,” Ewing said.

Barth said he has found video on YouTube that shows his helicopter, on another day, passing by while a different drone was airborne near Barth's flight headquarters. Barth wants the FAA to act quickly.

"They are trying to get rules in place. However, they are way behind, and there needs to be some kind of stop-gap regulation," he said.

The organization representing model aircraft owners said it's developed rules for its members to avoid close calls with helicopters and airplanes.

The FAA in late June did tell recreational drone pilots to contact airport towers if flying within 5 miles of the airport and to use basic flight rules existing for years to prevent trouble. It also warned that being reckless with an unmanned aircraft could get you arrested.

A complete and comprehensive rule covering these unmanned aircraft might be done before the end of the year.

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