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Drone use highly regulated on, near military installations

By Brad Rhen | July 2, 2020

FORT INDIANTOWN GAP, Pa. —

Two incidents in the last three years involving privately owned drones raised concerns at Fort Indiantown Gap’s Muir Army Airfield.

In the first, a drone came within 100 feet of a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter that was flying just east of the installation. In the second incident, a drone flew east to west directly over the airfield and descended into the vicinity of Marquette Lake. 

Neither drone’s operator had communicated with air-traffic controllers at Muir Army Airfield, said Marc Ramsay, chief of the airfield’s tower facility.

“Both incidents created potential hazards which were fortunately avoided,” Ramsay said. 

Privately owned drones – also known as unmanned aircraft systems, or UASs – have increased in popularity in recent years. It is relatively easy to buy them, and some people make their own. There are drone clubs and competitions.

But, there are many regulations when it comes to operating drones, particularly in the vicinity of airports and military installations. 

Both the Federal Aviation Administration and the Army have strict regulations that cover drones. The Army’s primary regulation is AR 95-2 (Air Traffic Control, Airfield/Heliport, and Airspace Operations), and the FAA’s regulations can be found at www.faa.gov/uas. 

“Regardless of the location, whether it be Fort Indiantown Gap or any other military installation, if an individual wishes to fly a drone under commercial or recreation purposes within 5 statute miles of an airport or installation, it requires a certificate of authorization through the FAA along with a garrison commander approval memo when within the limits of a military installation,” Ramsay said. 

Complying with these regulations is especially important at Fort Indiantown Gap. Muir Army Airfield is home to both the main element of the 28th Expeditionary Combat Aviation Brigade as well as the Eastern Army National Guard Aviation Training Site, making it one of the busiest airfields in the Army.

“The intent of this coordination is not to deter the usage of drones, but instead to ensure the safety of all operations taking place,” Ramsay said. 

Chief Warrant Officer 5 Darren Dreher, a UH-60 Blackhawk pilot with the Pennsylvania National Guard, said it is very important to obey regulations regarding drones, particularly where there is steady helicopter traffic. A drone strike could potentially be catastrophic to a helicopter, he said.

“Besides the obvious security concerns, if the military installation has aviation training then it becomes a safety concern,” he said. “The more assets in the air occupying the same footprint become a probability multiplier for one.”

Dreher, who works full-time as Pennsylvania’s state standardization officer, has experience flying multiple rotary-wing and fixed-wing aircraft throughout his 34 years in the military. He personally had a close call with a drone during a deployment to Iraq in 2009 while flying a Blackhawk in southern Iraq.

“Drones are difficult to see in the best of environments,” he said. “ If you can imagine a low visibility, dusk time frame mission in a bleak environment with little contrast, a brown to grey haze and dust-filled sky blending into a low contrast desert floor of the same color. 

“Due to its small frontal cross section we did not see the vehicle until it was zipping below us at less than 50 feet,” he added. “This could have been a catastrophe.”