On Wednesday June 24, Cal Fire aerial tankers were forced to the ground by a military reconnaissance drone. The 4 ft wide orange fixed wing drone was first spotted at 11,000 ft and crossed paths with a Cal Fire tanker and spotter aircraft. In fear for their lives, the Cal Fire aircraft had to return to base, as did all other Cal Fire aircraft that were in the air.
This headline and first paragraph may sound sensational and alarming, and they are also almost completely bullshit. They are tiny bits of fact and incomplete information which have been creatively extended to make a story. In fact, there is so little factual information in this story that it’s a wonder that actual news reporters at the press conference concerning this did not grill Daniel Berlant, Cal Fire’s Public Information Officer for better details. They questioned almost nothing.
We have no reason to question the Cal Fire pilots that reported seeing a 4ft orange or red fixed wing aircraft at 11,000 feet over a national forest, basically in the middle of nowhere, but the facts end there. Who was operating the aircraft, and the legal status of the aircraft are all completely unknown.
As for whom, it was suggested by the Cal Fire PIO Berlant that it was a hobbyist. The suggestion may be from ignorance to what most hobbyists are capable of, or may be due to some agenda we are unaware of. However if we look at the few facts we actually have reported, it would seem more likely to be some sort of UAV operated by a government agency. The color orange or red is frequently used by the U.S. Navy as well as other agencies to increase visibility of the unmanned aircraft, and is typically not a concern for hobbyists.
In addition, it takes a fair amount of technical skill, practice, and experience to construct and aircraft capable of long range control and high altitude sustained flight. You can’t buy hobby aircraft like this off the shelf. Yes there are hobbyists that have done this, but there are very few of them. In other words, doing that is *really* hard. These types of long range FPV aircraft require a lot of system design knowledge, electronics skills, and computer skills. These are not the type of individuals to make poor decisions when it comes to flying around active full scale aircraft.
The legal status can not be assumed either. If it was in fact a government agency, they may have proper authorization to fly, although they may have ignored the published NOTAMs, creating a legal issue. If it was in fact the military, they are not subject to the FAA regulations, and for all practical purposes, can ‘do what they want and get away with it’. They do cooperate and communicate with the FAA in U.S. airspace however.
It does pain me to see the hobby world being thrown in front of the bus without any actual facts establishing that they should be condemned. Perhaps there actually is evidence that it was a hobbyist. Maybe the pilots took a picture, maybe they were able to read markings on the aircraft. We would welcome any further information on this, but to date, we have not seen anything. So this was really a social experiment. Put out a sensational headline, and see how many just don’t read the full article, and accept the click-bait headline as the truth. But if you have read this far, I appreciate your dedication in understanding the whole story before jumping to conclusions.