How Did a DJI Phantom Crash Into a U.S. Army UH-60 Black Hawk Helicopter?

Many news outlets have now reported on the details on the September 2017 incident in New York where a DJI Phantom 4 operated by Mr. Vyacheslav Tantashov was involved in a mid-air collision with a U.S. Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter which destroyed the drone and damaged the Black Hawk.

The NTSB did a solid job of investigating the fairly simple mishap and determined that…(please hold your amazement…) the drone operator was at fault. Now, you might be thinking to yourself, “Of course they rush to blame the 58yr old man with no formal flight training flying a sub $1000 toy’ and not the highly trained, licensed U.S. Army Officer (or WO) specifically selected to pilot the multi-million dollar UH-60 Black Hawk in support of a mission to protect the UN General Council?”

I mean, according to interviews, Mr. Tantashov was the ideal drone hobbyist.  He registered his drones with the FAA, he kept his skills current (flying 38 flights in the 30 days prior to the incident), and knew all the rules (sort of):

  1. Don’t fly over 400ft AGL.
  2. Don’t fly within 5nm of an airport (without approval)
  3. …and that’s about it.

According to the investigator that interviewed him, “He stated that he knew to stay away from airports, and was aware there was Class B airspace nearby.  He stated he knew that the aircraft should be operated below 400 ft.”

Mr. Tantashov made two mistakes that ultimately resulted in what I’m sure was an extremely uncomfortable conversation with an NTSB investigator.  One is extremely basic, and the other is something that I believe should be addressed by the drone community at large.  I will address the former here, and the latter in another post.

The most obvious issue is that he flew his aircraft outside his visual line of sight.  

To fly without positive visual contact with your aircraft is to selfishly shift the responsibility of safety off of yourself and onto everyone else in the sky.

In my opinion, (and that of the NTSB) this was the major causal factor in this mishap.  To understand why this was such a major misstep, we have to think a bit about the human field of regard and how pilots are trained to scan the sky to ensure they can see and avoid any other aircraft.

Most CFIs recommend that a pilot operating in VFR conditions spend 75%-80% of their time looking outside the aircraft, and 20%-25% of their time scanning instruments.  Any pilot will spend time learning how to break up the sky into 10˚ segments and using a series of short, regularly spaced eye movements to search each 10˚ sector for traffic.

This type of scan is made possible by continuous eye movement and mankind’s relatively large FOV (we have a slightly over 200˚ forward-facing horizontal arc of their visual field.)  This type of scan is simply not possible using the camera of a drone.  Even if flying in POV mode, the small (84˚) FOV for the Phantom 4 simply does not allow for significant situational awareness.  That is why it is so important to keep the drone where you can see it; it is the only way you can maintain a scan to see and avoid any other aircraft (or birds, balloons, wires, towers, etc.)  To fly without positive visual contact with your aircraft is to selfishly shift the responsibility of safety off of yourself and onto everyone else in the sky.

The point of impact was ~ 2.5 miles from where Mr. Tantashov was standing, and even if he was using the camera to look around, there is no way that he could have possibly seen the approaching helicopter.

flight path

Regardless of the other rules that Mr. Tantashov broke during his flight, had he simply flown his drone where he could see it, it is quite possible that nobody would have ever heard of him.

Remote pilots have been fighting the perception that we are less than qualified to safely operate an aircraft in National Airspace.  Sadly, even well-meaning drone operators like Mr. Tantashov are not helping our cause.  Until the drone community as a whole treats them more like aircraft and less like toys, I fear that we will continue to find ourselves cleaning up the wreckage.