TUCSON, Ariz. — It started with a near miss.
A Customs and Border Protection helicopter was taking off from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson on February 9, 2021. It was dark and around 10:45 at night.
Some sort of drone swooped in west of the base and almost hit the helicopter.
The CBP helicopter tried to follow it and Tucson PD's helicopter flew in to help. What happened next has baffled drone experts.
12 News obtained police reports from that night, which show the flight crew of Tucson's helicopter couldn't explain what they were seeing or how the drone was behaving.
Tucson's helicopter spotted a green light that they believed was attached to the underbelly of the drone. However, they couldn't see the drone itself even with infrared goggles. Throughout the entire chase, they could never tell what they were following.
According to the report, the drone "maneuvered all over the city." The pilots lost it then reacquired it multiple times. According to the flight track for that night, the police helicopter began to spiral up and west, following the drone and the drone sped away at 100 mph even into a headwind of 40 mph.
Typical commercial drones cannot travel 100 mph even under the best conditions. They are also limited in the distance they can fly from the remote control station. That distance is usually five miles or so, but this drone far surpassed that. And per FAA regulations, drones are not allowed to fly above 400 feet.
Eventually, the helicopter ended up flying toward Mount Lemmon at an altitude of 14,000 feet, thousands of feet above the helicopter. The pilot wrote the drone would circle the helicopter at 100 mph.
"[T]his did not appear to be any off-the-shelf" drone, the pilot wrote.
Another helicopter crew member wrote it appeared to be a "very sophisticated/specialized" drone that was "able to perform like no other...I have observed."
More than an hour later, the police helicopter started to run out of fuel, but the drone was still flying. The helicopter had to return to the airport and lost the drone for good.
"This is not a normal drone," Vic Moss said. Moss is with the Drone Service Providers Alliance, an advocacy group for the drone industry.
"What you could be looking at would be a hybrid system," Moss said. "So it'd be something like maybe a propane-powered electrical generator."
Moss said it's technically possible to build a drone that could do what the Tucson drone is reported to have done. But it wouldn't be easy or cheap. Drones like that exist, he said, but they're usually limited to government programs.
"I would say it's a drone that got away from somebody," Moss said. "But there's all kinds of weirdness in that report."
If that drone had hit one of the helicopters or even a plane, the results could have been catastrophic, Moss said.
Tucson PD and the Customs and Border Protection filed their reports with the FBI. The FBI only said they're still looking for tips.
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