Fresno medical helicopter has near miss with drone

An air ambulance helicopter flying a patient to a hospital had to take evasive action to avoid a mid-air collision with a drone aircraft Wednesday afternoon north of Fresno Yosemite International Airport.

The SkyLife helicopter, a Bell 407 owned by American Ambulance and Rogers Helicopters, encountered the remote-controlled drone shortly after 1 p.m. about two miles north of the airport, according to Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor.

Todd Valeri, president of American Ambulance, said the helicopter had been called to help a patient in the Mono Hot Springs area of the Sierra National Forest and was bringing the patient to Community Regional Medical Center in downtown Fresno. The copter was flying at an altitude of about 1,000 feet when the pilot identified a drone at that altitude flying directly toward them.

“We were coming back from a mission with a patient on board when the pilot noticed an object that we identified as a drone,” said Vince Ellis, a flight nurse on the helicopter. “The pilot called out ‘nine o’clock’ (indicating that the drone was to the left of the helicopter) and made a controlled turn – it wasn’t a heavy bank – and was able to avoid the drone.”

Ellis added that the drone appeared to be four to six feet long, and came within about 15 to 20 feet of colliding with the helicopter. “It went just below our rotors,” he said. “It was pretty close.”

Valeri said it is the first time in the 25-year history of the SkyLife program that one of its aircraft encountered a drone. “At no point was there any panic or compromise of control of the aircraft,” he added. “Our pilots train for this type of thing, and they’re used to flying in hazardous situations.”

Encounters between drones and aircraft near airports have been an increasing problem, the FAA reports. The agency has issued rules for drone pilots to follow, banning the objects from within five miles of an airport unless the airport and control tower are notified before flying. Drones are limited to flying below 400 feet and must be kept within the operator’s line of sight at all times. Drone operators can face fines for endangering other aircraft or people.

After the near-miss, Ellis said the pilot called to report the incident to the FAA tower at the airport. Vikkie Calderon, a spokeswoman for FYI, said the tower notified local police, who were searching to see if they could find the drone or its operator.

Fresno Police Lt. Joe Gomez said airport police were handling the investigation. Airport police could not be reached for comment.