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Voice of the Aerial Application Industry
September 27, 2018
Wis. Operator Takes Action After Third UAV Near Miss

“I can’t even begin to tell you how I missed this thing. I shouldn’t have missed it.” —Agricair Flying Service operator Jim Perrin, estimating he came within 25 yards of hitting a drone head on

A Wisconsin operator nearly collided with a UAV on the way back to his airstrip this month. On Sept. 10, at 3:31 p.m. CT, Jim Perrin, the owner/operator of Agricair Flying Service Inc., was ferrying back to his airstrip in Bancroft, Wis., to get another load when he suddenly noticed a drone centered directly in his windshield. About two miles out from his airstrip, “literally just in the blink of an eye, my windshield was completely full of drone,” Perrin said. It was close enough that he could see the blades of what appeared to be a six-rotor helicopter drone.


Perrin immediately rolled the airplane into a 90-degree bank to the right, then immediately rolled back to the left to try to reacquire visual contact. At that point he noticed a van parked in the southeast corner of a potato field that happened to belong to one of his large customers. The conditions were clear and sunny, which enabled Perrin to pick up the UAV’s shadow coming out of his turn. He watched it begin its descent to land.


“As I was finishing the 360-degree turn, I looked down at my altimeter and it was between 500 and 550 feet AGL, above ground level, which struck me as odd, because I thought, what in the world is a drone doing up here? But then I rationalized it by saying, ‘Well, maybe I pulled back on the stick when I turned.’ Maybe I was straying lower.”


Perrin can’t say for sure how close his UAV encounter was, but based on the size in his windshield, he estimates he was within 25 yards of hitting the drone head on while ferrying at nearly 160 mph. “I can’t even begin to tell you how I missed this thing. I shouldn’t have missed it. It may have been a little further away, but if I missed it, which I did, it had to literally be by inches,” Perrin said. “Had this thing been 50 feet to the right or the left, or 50 feet below me, I’d have never seen it.”


A subsequent conversation Perrin had with the drone company the next day confirmed that the UAV had been above the 400-feet ceiling set for small UAS operations. It wasn’t the first breach for the UAV service. In fact, the Sept. 10 incident was Agricair Flying Service’s third close call with the UAV company this summer. The first two incidents happened in June and July, but Perrin did not report them because he knew which drone company was involved and wanted to work with them to maintain clear lines of communications to avoid future encounters.


“We’ve had a number of close calls. Two of the incidents now have been very, very close,” Perrin said. “We had one incident early on where the drone stopped right off the wing tip of [my pilot Mike Lavell’s] airplane, and then this one where it was in the windshield. But outside from that, between [Reabe Spraying Service] and myself there’s been a total of six close calls that we know of,” Perrin said.


Perrin called Damon Reabe, the operator of Reabe Spraying Service and Dairyland Aviation, that night to let Reabe know about the close call Perrin had had, since both of their operations were familiar with the UAV company involved.


Neither Perrin’s nor Reabe Spraying Service’s operations are alone in encountering a UAV while performing aerial application operations. According to NAAA’s recently completed season-ending survey of Part 137 operators, nearly 1 out of 5 operators (18 percent) said their company had encountered a UAV while operating an ag aircraft this year.


The third close call was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Perrin. He reported the Sept. 10 incident to the FAA. “This one was close enough that it wouldn’t have only been damaging to an airplane; it would have been fatal.”


“I fly in an environment where people call the police and call the Department of Agriculture, and they call government agencies pretty frequently. And because of that, I really have an aversion to calling law enforcement, or I have an aversion to turning these people in,” Perrin said. “We’ve been trying to work with them all summer.”


The system Perrin and the UAV company put in place worked fairly well, just not well enough in this case. “They were calling us, or texting us, and telling us which field that they would be in at what times. And then when they moved, they would call us and tell us.” Likewise, Perrin would adjust his spray schedule to work around the UAV service’s field work so that the UAV workers would not have to worry about reentry intervals. “Honestly, they dropped the ball and quit paying attention,” he said.


After the UAV company’s third near miss, Perrin regrets not reporting the prior incidents now. He followed the checklist NAAA developed of steps to take after a UAV encounter to report the Sept. 10 incident. That night when Perrin got back to his office, his wife Julie had already laid out the materials he needed from the checklist. “On the checklist, she had the FSDO’s phone number. She had the NASA form printed out with the checklist. All I had to do was sit down and go through this thing step by step.” The only thing Perrin did not do on the checklist was contact local law enforcement because he already knew which drone company was involved in the incident and who the operators were.


The next morning, Perrin had to fly right away, so Reabe offered to call their local Flight Standards Office (FSO) in Milwaukee and brief their principal maintenance inspector and the manager of the Milwaukee FSO on his colleague and competitor’s behalf. As a result, the FSO was already aware of the situation by the time Perrin called them after his morning jobs were complete.


“Not only did Damon call while I was flying, but he also got one of his pilots to write a statement. So not only did the [FSO] hear about it just from me, they heard about it from my competitor as well, which obviously lends a lot of credence to what happened,” Perrin said. “We were fortunate in the fact that our competitor ... unfortunate that they had the same problems, but fortunate that we were able to work together to get some action going on this.”


In aviation, the margin for error can be razor thin. Both parties can do everything right 99 percent of the time, but the one time you let up or they slip up, it could be catastrophic. The disheartening thing about Perrin’s situation is the drone operators involved fell short of their professional duties to ensure safe drone operations. The UAV company was 107 certificated, and Perrin says the drone operators were commercially rated pilots. “Here’s the kick,” he said. “They broke the law, they were well above 400 feet, and they were not monitoring their drone. They were sitting in the van. If they had been standing outside of the van, they would have A, heard me coming, and B, seen me coming. They did neither.” The drone operators also did not give the manned aircraft the right of way and yield, which is another violation of Part 107.


“I feel an obligation to Mike, my pilot. I feel an obligation to [Damon] Reabe’s pilots that this has got to end. And I feel an obligation to the rest of the industry that the NASA form needs to be filled out. The numbers have to be tallied,” Perrin said. “And what I regret in all of this is, the very first near miss we had should have been reported. And that’s why I do feel a little foolish about this whole thing.”

Checklist After a UAV Encounter with an Ag Aircraft

NAAA’s UAV encounter checklist provides guidance to operators and pilots on who to notify in the event of a UAV incident in flight. The full checklist is available here to print out. It contains the following steps along with NAAA’s advice.

  1. Inform Local Law Enforcement
  2. Report it to the FAA National Safety Hotline
  3. Call your Local Flight Standards Office (FSO)
  4. File a NASA Aviation Safety Report
  5. Tell Other Pilots
  6. Notify Local News Media and Ag Trade Press
  7. Inform Your Customers, Ag Retailers and Crop Consultants
  8. Contact Your Insurance Agent if Warranted

In addition to its UAV checklist, NAAA is available to offer additional assistance in the event of a near miss. Contact NAAA at (202) 546-5722 for further support.

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This newsletter is intended for NAAA members only. NAAA requests that should any party desire to publish, distribute or quote any part of this newsletter that they first seek the permission of the Association. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of the National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA), its Board of Directors, staff or membership. Items in this newsletter are not the result of paid advertising and are only meant to highlight newsworthy developments. No endorsement by NAAA is intended or implied.
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