Medical Helicopter Administrators Emphasize Caution After Drone Incident
December 4, 2014
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  • MOUNT PLEASANT — Recently, a medical helicopter had a close call with a remote-controlled aircraft as it flew above the Schuylkill County Joe Zerbey Airport.

    At the time, there were no patients aboard Life Flight 5, which is managed by Geisinger Medical Center, Danville. No one was injured and the helicopter sustained no damage. However, the incident should remind remote-aircraft hobbyists to make additional efforts to contact county communications to report their whereabouts, medical helicopter officials said this week.

    Life Flight 5, a 2013 twin-engine American Eurocopter EC-145, is based at a hangar at 2003 Old Phoenix Road in Cass Township. At times, it utilizes the fueling station at Schuylkill County Joe Zerbey Airport.

    “They had just dropped off a patient at Hershey Medical Center and were returning for fuel when they encountered the drone,” Jerry Splitt, program director for Life Flight, said Wednesday.

    The incident occurred 4:30 p.m. Nov. 19, according to a report Splitt filed with the Association of Air Medical Services.

    “Life Flight 5 was descending into the Zerbey airport in Schuylkill County for fuel. The aircraft was about 2 miles southwest of the airport on a slow descent at 2,400 MSL (Mean Sea Level). The flight nurse in the co-pilot seat was the first to see a drone at the 12 o’clock position flying towards the aircraft at a high rate of closure and at their altitude. The pilot at this point also made visual contact with the drone and made an evasive right bank turn. The pilot notified the FAA,” according to that report.

    Willard said 2,400 MSL would be “about 600 or 700 feet above ground level.”
    Splitt said the drone was “between 50 and 100 feet” from the helicopter.
    Three people were on board Life Flight 5 at the time. The pilot was Patrick Brinkerhoff. The flight nurse riding in front, by the pilot, was Gene Woll. And the flight nurse riding in back was Kelly Kutza, Michael S. Ferlazzo, a public relations specialist for Geisinger Health System, said Wednesday.
    Ferlazzo and Splitt would not allow the crew to be interviewed Wednesday.

    “There’s been a lot of national attention on the issue in general, usually in and around major commercial airports, such as Allentown or Wilkes-Barre or Harrisburg. But they’re not giving a great deal of attention to our community airports. So a potential risk to the community is drone activity in and around private airports that are not controlled by air traffic control, that do not have radars that will pick up these drones. At such airports, drone operators need to use tremendous caution,” Mike Wargo, the administrator of Lehigh Valley MedEvac, Allentown, said Monday.

    “In general, we don’t allow them. And there are no rules set up for them. But I think the FAA is going to come out with a set of rules by the end of 2015. I think you’ll have to have a license and a waiver to fly them,” Bill Willard, manager of Schuylkill County Joe Zerbey Airport in Foster Township, said Tuesday.

    “These things can be hazards. And I’m hopeful that the FAA will offer a common sense approach on where you can operate them and how you can operate them and place restrictions on altitudes,” Splitt said.

    “My fear is they’re going to put limits on us or shut us down,” James Dunn, Lansford, the president of the Tuscarora R/C Flying Club, Barnesville, said Wednesday.

    Dunn did not know the person who was flying the drone near Zerbey airport the day of the incident but criticized that person’s disregard for safety.
    People who buy such remote-controlled drones should abide by the rules of conduct established by the Academy of Model Aeronautics, Muncie, Indiana, Dunn said.

    “Their rules state that we do not fly within three miles of an airport, unless we go to the airport and say we’re having a show or something like that,” Dunn said.

    Sales of these high-tech remote-controlled helicopters are on the rise, and they’re becoming popular tools for federal, state and local government agencies, according to an article published online by the Detroit Free Press. Nationwide, the industry is expected to grow from about $2.2 billion in 2015 to more than $10 billion by 2025 including more than 100,000 jobs, according to the article, which referenced a study by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a nonprofit industry group based in Arlington, Virginia.

    “But, when you have idiots out there who think ‘I can do whatever I want,’ ” Dunn said, “then you have an issue.”

    The helicopter crew is trained to react to such unexpected air traffic.

    “We would have done the same thing if it had been a migratory bird. Unfortunately, this time, it was some small man-made device,” Splitt said.

    The drone operator has not been identified, Splitt said.
    After the incident, Willard was questioned by a number of organizations, including Geisinger, the Federal Correctional Institute-Schuylkill,

    Minersville, and Muir Army Airfield at Fort Indiantown Gap.
    Willard told them he had “no idea” who was operating the remote-controlled device, but doubted that person was on the grounds of the airport when the incident occurred.

    “They sure as heck weren’t flying it out of here. I wouldn’t allow it. First, they couldn’t get onto the airport. They’d have to get through the gates. Even if I was home, I’d see them on the cameras. Part of my job is knowing what the heck is going on. And I think this was an isolated event. I fly and I’m not too worried about it at this point,” Willard said.
    A similar incident occurred in August at Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, Ohio. A drone delayed the landing of a CareFlight helicopter carrying a patient who was hurt. Police discovered a man was using the drone to take aerial photos of the Montgomery County Fairgrounds, according to

    The week of the incident at the Zerbey airport, airline pilots at John F. Kennedy International Airport spotted numerous drones. One came within five to 10 feet of the left wing of Delta Air Lines flight on Nov. 16, according to a story on the website for The Wall Street Journal.

    “The drone incidents near JFK, which officials said the FBI and FAA were investigating, highlight what federal officials and pilots see as an emerging aviation threat from the proliferation of commercially available unmanned aircraft,” according to

    “It doesn’t happen every day. But I think we’re seeing the beginning of a new phase in aviation. You have so many different types of remote controlled items on the market today. Some are the size of a bug. Others are the size of a Cessna. And I think, on a national level, you’re going to see this all over the place,” Willard said.

    Geisinger’s Life Flight program, established in 1981, hasn’t had any problems with remote-controlled aircraft before the November incident, Splitt said.

    MedEvac, which started up in 1982, hasn’t experienced one, according to Wargo.

    But Splitt, Wargo and Willard are concerned about changing times and regulations for new technology available to the public.
    “If there are drone operators out there, they need to reach out to the flight programs in their area and dispatch centers, build relationships with them and have coordination plans, in particular the professional drone operators who are doing it for news media, etcetera. We want to work in a safe environment. And if they know we’re coming into an area where there’s been an incident, then we can coordinate. We are not looking to restrict them, but we are looking to work together,” Wargo said.

    “They should also reach out to dispatch centers to establish a point of contact, so they’re not in an area where we would be landing or departing. The greatest risk that it poses to us is during landing and departure,” Wargo said.

    “They need to establish a general aviation plan with the general aviation folks in our area, not just with air medical but general aviation. We want to prevent any kind of incident from occurring in our community,” Wargo said.

    “But what do you do about the people who don’t care?” Willard asked.
    Dunn encouraged drone enthusiasts to learn more about safety by visiting or the website for the local club at

    At airports and helipads, ground operations fall under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Transportation. But operations above the ground fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal Aviation Administration, according to Wargo.

    The Schuylkill County Joe Zerbey Airport is managed by the Schuylkill County Airport Authority, and its members are appointed by the Schuylkill County Commissioners, according to Willard.