Drones pose threat to Washoe County Sheriff's helicopter

On Your Side: Drones pose threat to Washoe County Sheriff's helicopter (SBG)

The Washoe County Sheriff's helicopter, also called RAVEN, has been the unintended target from amateur drone pilots. In the past year, it's had four very close calls.

"The closest one was probably within 10 feet of the cockpit. So it was pretty close, enough to get our attention for sure," said Deputy Doug Russell, RAVEN's Pilot.

That near-miss was at the Hawken Fire in Caughlin Ranch last June, when a drone passed just under the nose.

"When you have a very small object like a drone come zipping over the horizon at you, it can catch you off guard, they're not easy to see, they're very small," Russell said.

The pilots used their cameras on the helicopter to track down the person responsible. They found a man and his teenager. They were warned and not cited. The sheriff's office would rather educate before their enforcement.

Drone pilots could be violating FAA regulations, depending where they fly. But flying the drone in manned aircraft airspace is dangerous. The helicopter pilots say if a drone hit their chopper, it could very likely be deadly. The drone could easily take down the helicopter, and where it lands is out of the pilots' control -- which puts everyone on the ground in danger too.

"The helicopter has a lot of moving parts, and when you have something like a drone go through the rotor system, it's going to put that rotor system in an imbalanced situation. When the happens, the aircraft will literally shake itself apart.," Russell said.

Russell said watching for drones has now become part of his busy flying routine, especially at night when drones are even harder to see.

"I'm talking on multiple radios, I'm looking out the window, I'm looking down on the ground, I'm trying to avoid birds, mountains and wires and now we're throwing drones in there too," Russell said.

Russell said the drone pilots launch their aircraft either to see the scene that RAVEN is flying on or to get video of RAVEN flying.

The sky is even more dangerous now that more people own drones.

"There's probably a million drones at any given time. Everybody's getting one under the tree or for their birthday," Russell said.

The Washoe County Sheriff's helicopter pilots have also been targets of laser pointers. They can blind the pilots.

"We got hit by one earlier this month when we were on an officer-involved shooting in downtown. Hit us right in the eyeballs, and it really knocks you back. It hurts," Russell said.

If caught pointing a laser at an aircraft, a person could face federal charges. A man in California received a 14-year sentence in 2014 for pointing a laser at a Fresno police helicopter.

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