Drone pilot shaken by near miss with low-flying helicopter

A Saint John drone pilot is pursuing a complaint with Transport Canada after his unmanned aircraft was almost hit by a helicopter this month in the sky above a crowd of hundreds of people and boats in Belleisle Bay.

"There was a near disaster," said Jim Turnbull of 12 O'Clock High Drone Services.

Turnbull said he had been hired by the Bruce family to shoot still photos and high-definition video of Lestock, a fundraiser for the Leslie E. Bruce Environmental Scholarship at the University of New Brunswick.

"That fundraising event was for a great cause, and the day almost ended really early, too early, just because of some irresponsible activity."

Following the rules

Usually pilots of traditional aircraft are the ones complaining about drones.

"But here's a situation … where the drone pilot did everything possible correctly, professionally and by the book."

Yet, there was still a near miss that "could have been a catastrophe," said Turnbull. 

Ten days earlier, Turnbull and his business partner had applied for and received a special flight operations certificate, he said, to fly over the event on Glenwood Wharf Road, near Caton Island, between noon and dusk on Aug. 3.

"We were pretty confident that we had that airspace booked." 

Turnbull said they arrived at about 1 p.m., checked the site and weather and cordoned off a launch pad and landing area. 

He was about five minutes into his first flight, gathering still shots above the wharf, when his spotter saw a helicopter approaching "fast and low" from the north-northwest. 

"It was shocking," said Turnbull.

He never expected to see a helicopter, or any other aircraft, in the area because his drone flight plans should have been posted in the notice system run by Nav Canada. 

All pilots are supposed to check notices to pilots called "NOTAMs" before taking off. And if the helicopter pilot had seen it, he should have avoided the area.

"The whole purpose of the special flight operation certificate is to remove such hazards," Turnbull said.

Seconds to make decision

But there was the helicopter, said Turnbull, at tree-top level, about 60 metres above the water. He said it was a blue Bell JetRanger with white trim.

"I had seconds to decide what my options were going to be."

Submitted by Jim Turnbull

He briefly considered trying to descend or climb but hoped if he stayed put, the helicopter would pass beneath him. 

It did.

Turnbull estimated that a collision was missed by a mere 75 to 80 feet or about 22 to 24 metres. 

"If he had … hit my drone, what we're talking about here is ... the equivalent of somebody dropping a brick off an overpass and hitting a car."

It would have taken out the windshield, said Turnbull, and the pilot wouldn't have had time to react before crashing into the crowd. 

Turnbull is convinced the helicopter pilot was oblivious to the danger.

Returned again

"He turned around, did another 360, went over the crowd and then came back again out of the north," he said, this time passing over the drone, by 140 to 150 feet, or about 42 to 45 metres.

Turnbull is still disturbed by what might have happened.

"Am I pretty shaken by it still? Sure, no question. 

"I just want that pilot to sort of sharpen up."

But according to Canadian Aviation rules, even though Turnbull had notified authorities about his drone flight plans and received permission to be there, it was still up to him to get out of the helicopter's way.

"Drone pilots are responsible for being aware of other traffic and must yield to other aircraft," said Alexandre Desjardins, a senior communications adviser with Transport Canada.

The rules also say that helicopters are supposed to stay at least 1,000 feet (about 304 metres) above the highest obstacle within a horizontal distance of 2,000 feet (about 609 metres). 

Helicopter flew under drone

According to Turnbull, his drone was at a height of about 280 or 300 feet when the helicopter flew beneath it.

Submitted by Jim Turnbull

Non-commercial pilots who have been caught flying too low or recklessly have been fined between $750 and $7,500, according to recent enforcement notifications on Transport Canada's website.

The department's Atlantic region enforcement unit is "in the compliance verification stage," with respect to Turnbull's complaint, Desjardins said in an email.

"If warranted, an investigation will be carried out," he said, adding the department wouldn't speculate on a timeline.

Turnbull said he was interviewed by a Transport Canada investigator on Tuesday.