On February 6, 2020, an Icon Helicopters Airbus Helicopter AS350BA N611TC and a DJI Mavic 2 drone collided in mid-flight during the King of the Hammers off-road race in Johnson Valley, San Bernardino County, California.
It was fortunate that the helicopter escaped with only minor scratches. The drone sustained considerably more damage and crashed after it had lost an arm.
Fortunately, no one was injured or killed in this drone accident from two years ago.
On January 6, 2022, the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released its accident investigation report into this mid-air collision.
The collision between the DJI Mavic 2 drone and the helicopter took place during the King of the Hammers event.
The Ultra4 Racing series includes the King of the Hammers event. Hammerking Productions Inc, the event’s production firm, outsources video production to a contractor which, in turn, hires helicopter and drone operators. In total five helicopters and four drones were contracted to cover the event.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) states that “The helicopter was operating under the provisions of 14 CFR Part 91, with an FAA Certificate of Authorization or waiver to 91.119 (minimum altitudes) to provide videography of an off-road race, under visual flight rules, within Class G airspace in a remote and unpopulated area.”
The DJI Mavic 2 Pro was flown under the provisions of 14 CFR Part 107 to capture the event as well. The 44-year-old drone pilot had 90 hours of flying experience and received his Remote Pilot Part 107 certificate in February 2019.
The video footage captured by the DJI Mavic 2 drone shows two helicopters and the race car. It also shows how low to the ground all aircraft were operating.
NTSB holds DJI Mavic 2 drone pilot responsible for collision
The drone operator did not use a visual observer to help him avoid any other aircraft.
The NTSB writes that “there was no procedure to provide any sort of separation between the helicopters and sUAS, nor were the sUAS pilots monitoring the helicopter air-to-air frequency.”
The agency continues to say that there was seemingly little appreciation by the race organizers or the drone operator of the inherent risks of having both manned and unmanned aircraft operating in such close vicinity.
Ultimately the NTSB concludes that the probable cause of this accident is “the failure of the small UAS remote pilot to give way to the helicopter, resulting in an inflight collision.”
The agency states that the drone pilot’s failure to “assess and mitigate the risks of operations in close proximity to other aircraft,” and the lack of inclusion of the drone operations as part of the overall aviation activity, contributed to the collision.
In the NTSB’s report, the drone is specified as a DJI Mavic 2 Zoom, however, the drone pilot mentions that it was a DJI Mavic 2 Pro drone in his accident report.
“I was covering live video using a Mavic Pro drone provided to me by the race organizers for an off-road racing event called King of the Hammers. The helicopter I collided with was also on the team covering the race. I was following the lead car approximately 30 feet above the ground when the accident happened. The time was approximately 12 PM. The collision happened about 1200 feet from my physical location. The terrain is very rugged and in a canyon.”
“The drone I was flying fell from the sky and I was told a side window of the helicopter was cracked although I never witnessed it. The helicopter continued to fly for the next two days, but the drone I was flying was broken.”
In his report, the drone pilot acknowledged that clear maps to separate the air space for both manned and remote aircraft, as well as improved communications through daily meetings, and the use of a visual observer would have reduced the likelihood of the mid-air collision.
The NTSB referenced the following drone regulations from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA):
“14 CFR 107.37 Operation near aircraft; right-of-way rules. (a) Each small unmanned aircraft must yield the right of way to all aircraft, airborne vehicles, and launch and reentry vehicles. Yielding the right of way means that the small unmanned aircraft must give way to the aircraft or vehicle and may not pass over, under, or ahead of it unless well clear. (b) No person may operate a small unmanned aircraft so close to another aircraft as to create a collision hazard.”
The DJI Mavic 2 drone was flown within visual line of sight and the meteorological conditions were good with 10-mile visibility.
DJI Mavic 2 drone captures collision with helicopter
The NTSB wrote:
“Video showed the helicopter visible in the drone camera (which was displayed on the drone pilot’s screen) above and to the right of the drone. The drone continued to follow the vehicle toward the position of the helicopter. As the track turned to the right, the helicopter passed to the left of the frame and out of view beyond a small rise. The track of the vehicle began to turn to the left around the small rise, when the collision occurred. The drone pilot (RPIC) reported his altitude was about 30 feet above ground, and that he was aware that the incident helicopter as well as others were in the area. The RPIC was operating alone, he did not have a visual observer assisting. According to a map provided by race organizers, the intended position of the RPIC was about 2,300 feet from where the collision occurred. Both the RPIC and the helicopter pilot provided maps indicating the RPIC was about 1,000 feet west, closer to the collision point.”
The NTSB tried to get flight information from the drone and even enlisted the help of DJI engineers. However, the files were corrupt and unreadable, likely due to post-incident power cycles, the report reads. The video files were successfully recovered and show the mid-air collision.
According to race management, the drone’s locations on the map were not containment zones but rather suggested points where they might have a network connection in order to transmit video footage.
The NTSB reports that the organizers stated the drones were limited to less than 400 feet (note: this is in accordance with 14 CFR Part 107) and helicopters were required to remain above 500 feet in areas of spectators (note: this is generally in accordance with 14 CFR Part 91). The area of the collision was not accessible by spectators.
The drone pilot explained that he was hired to fly under a “verbal contract,” and that this was his second time doing this. He added that the drone pilots at this race “fly really low and there are a lot of crashes.”
The drone operator also stated that there was no contact between RPICs and helicopter pilots, either pre-race or during the event. He did not receive any maps or other paperwork from the organizers.
Video footage courtesy of the NTSB.
Click here if you would like to read more articles about drone incidents and conditions that happened over the last few years.
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