‘It was crazy violent’: Drones too close to aircraft spark concerns in Tampa Bay

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TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — It’s a busy week for holiday travel this week, but there could be more than just planes in our skies.

Concerns over drones flying in unauthorized airspace and crashing into airliners continues to grow. Experts believe it’s not a question of if it will happen – but how bad will it be. 

The FAA is charged with cracking down on violators but is it aggressively going after all cases?

In June of 2018, John Marking was working an off-road desert race in Mexico when his chopper was hit.

“All of a sudden, the helicopter got flung sideways at about a 45-degree angle and the loudest noise imaginable. It started to vibrate horrendously,” Marking recalled. “We made a quick call to the race team to tell them we were going down and where.”

The aircraft had been struck by a drone.

Marking, a veteran pilot, was able to safely land. He says the damage to the aircraft was more than $100,000.

“It was violent… it was crazy violent,” Marking said.

Chris Shepherd, the chief pilot of the Tampa Police Department’s Aviation Unit, says he is spotting more and more drones. He fears a mid-air collision on the job.

“That drone would go right through the windshield of the helicopter,” he said.

So how often are pilots spotting drones in unauthorized airspace?

We found, in the past 12 months, there’s been more than 40 sightings reported to the FAA in the Tampa Bay area. During Super Bowl LV week in Tampa, the FBI says nearly 30 people were flying in a no-drone zone.  One was arrested.

Drones are required to stay at least five miles away from an airport and below 400 feet. The FAA has regulatory authority over airspace. If you break the rules, you can face stiff fines, even criminal charges.

Marking says he never saw the drone that nearly downed his helicopter.

“We like them, they’re cool, but you gotta know what you’re doing,” said Marking. “It’s almost impossible to spot a drone from an aircraft.”

The FAA has had seven enforcement cases in the Tampa Bay area in the past year. The agency is going after the most egregious violations.

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