The NTSB Report into the midair collision between a DJI Phantom and an army Blackhawk helicopter has been released and not surprisingly, the probable cause of the accident was sUAS pilot error.
On September 21, 2017, an army UH-60 helicopter was operating in class G airspace at an altitude of 300 feet near Staten Island, New York. The pilot saw the UAS and took evasive action, but it was insufficient to avoid the collision. The helicopter suffered a 1.5 inch dent in its main rotor and cracks in the composite fairing and a window frame. The Phantom was destroyed with parts of it remaining lodged in the helicopter.
Given these facts, the question arises as to why the sUAS pilot did not also take evasive action? According to the NTSB, the answer is that the pilot was 2.5 miles from the aircraft at the time of the accident, was flying based on waypoints entered into his tablet, was not flying using visual line of sight, and had no idea the helicopter was there. In addition, the investigation revealed that earlier in the day, the pilot had flown at an altitude of 547 feet at a distance of 1.8 miles, which almost certainly was not within visual line of sight.
Compounding these errors, the Phantom pilot was also unaware that there were two Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFR) in place that specifically prohibited all UAS flights; one for a meeting of the United Nations and the second for the President’s aircraft.
The NTSB’s interview with the Phantom pilot revealed that he had no idea the TFR was in place, that he was unfamiliar with either FAA regulations or good operating practices, and was generally unconcerned with the risks of flying beyond visual line of sight.
Rather than learn what his obligations were, the pilot decided to rely on the software provided by DJI to tell him whether it was legal for him to fly there. Unfortunately, “the TFR airspace awareness functionality in the DJI app (GEO) was not active at the time of the incident . . . .” The NTSB also noted that, even if the functionality had been active, the pilot’s tablet did not have a cellular connection, and as a result, probably would not have gotten the TFR information prior to flight.
As detailed by the NTSB:
During August 2017, an issue was identified with the GEO function that inadvertently and intermittently rendered the self-unlock feature for certain TFRs ineffective for some users. After a significant number of complaints about the problem, DJI decided to temporarily disable the TFR functionality in GEO until the feature was investigated and confirmed to be working properly. Therefore, at the time of the incident, no TFR information was available in GEO. Since GEO is meant to be an advisory system to pilots, DJI decided it was better to disable this feature until the problem could be corrected to enable authorized users to support recovery efforts and other authorized missions across the country, including firefighting response and demonstrations at air shows. There was no notice or advisory to users that this advisory function had been disabled. The TFR functionality in GEO was restored in October 2017.
The most important point of this entire incident is that the Phantom pilot was not legally operating as a hobbyist flying a model aircraft. Pursuant to 14 C.F.R. § 101.41(b), all hobbyists must operate in “accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines and within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization.” If the pilot had been flying in accordance with, for example, the Academy of Model Aeronautics safety code, he would have known what his obligations were with regard to airspace and best practices. He also would have known that, regardless of whether the DJI GEO app was working, he had an obligation to verify whether there were active TFRs prior to flight. The question now is whether the FAA will pursue a high profile enforcement action against the pilot to help publicize the obligations on all sUAS operators.