Officials: Drones causing problems with military planes

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CHICOPEE — A bird strike can cause millions of dollars of damage or even crash a plane, now officials are concerned that the increase in the use of drones may cause a bigger problem.

This year more than 700,000 drones have been sold and an estimated 700 near-misses with military aircraft have been reported across the country, said Lt. Col. James Bishop, director of public affairs for Westover.

Recently, he and other officials announced a list of regulations precautions people should take before flying a drone near Westover, or any other air space.

One of the key ones is to avoid flying within five miles of airspace. Those who do should contact the Westover Airfield Operations or the flight control tower at 413-557-2951 before they do, he said.

The issue is especially important because there are many homes and businesses as well as the Chicopee State Park and two golf courses within that five-mile range, said Maj. Emily Koziol, chief of safety for Westover.

Owners should also fly below 400 feet and keep their done in their sight, Bishop said.

As of Dec. 21, owners are also required to register with the Federal Aviation Administration at http://www.faa.gov/uas/registration/ at a cost of $5.

"A drone can have 10 pounds of metal and batteries," Koziol said. "Add heavy, harder under parts they can cause a lot more damage than a two-pound bird."

Because of their size, C-5 jets are less vulnerable than many but can still be damaged or even crash if they hit something. Each engine has multiple blades that spin very quickly, if one or more of the blades are damaged it can send the whole off balance and fail, she said.

Recently a C-17 jet at another base struck a two-pound red tailed hawk and it caused $2.5 million in damage. A bird, in comparison, has hollow bones and flesh, not hard parts like a drone, she said.

Drones are also a problem because they are difficult for air traffic controllers to pick up on radar and visually.

At Westover and the nearby Bradley International airport, air traffic controllers can pick up flocks of birds on radar and they will share that information with pilots and each other, she said.

Turkey Vultures and Canada Geese are the biggest problem at Westover and they usually flock at dusk and dawn. They are relatively easy to spot and if an air traffic controller sees a vulture or hawk circling around the runway when planes are taking off and landing, they will send someone out to run sirens or even blast an air cannon to scare them away, she said.

Drones are harder to spot and of course are unpredictable, Koziol said.

It is hard for pilots to see birds when they are flying and is even harder for them to spot a drone, and the C-5 jets at Westover have better visibility than many. It can even be difficult for pilots to see small single-engine planes while in the air, she said.

"We hit birds all the time and we don't even know it," said Koziol, who is also a pilot and instructor pilot. "If it is so hard to see an airplane, seeing a drone is harder and it will be near impossible for us to avoid."

Pilots at Westover also do a lot of low altitude training missions where they are flying as low as 1,000 feet above the ground, which is an altitude some more sophisticated drones can reach, adding to the problem, she said.

The biggest recommendation she has is to talk to the air traffic controllers before flying a drone within the five mile radius of the runway, she said.

In some cases people may be asked to take their drone elsewhere. But Westover does not fly daily and the volume of flights from the neighboring Westover Metropolitan Airport is low so drone owners may be told that it is safe to fly within the five mile radius.

"The tower watch supervisor will work with individuals to make sure they are flying in an air traffic friendly area," Airfield Operations officials said.

Information from: The Springfield (Mass.) Republican, http://www.masslive.com/news/


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