Border Patrol Helicopter Had Bizarre Encounter With Mysterious "Highly Modified" Drone (Updated)

The mystery drone flew up to 14,000 feet and was tracked for over an hour. Now the FBI is investigating.

USCBP ASTAR
USCBP

The FBI has announced the start of an investigation into a strange near-miss incident that occurred on February 9, 2021 in the skies over Tucson. At around 10:30 p.m. on that date, a helicopter operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, was reportedly buzzed by a “high powered” drone that followed it up to a high altitude. Multiple law enforcement agencies also attempted to follow the drone to the point that they could identify its operator, but were unsuccessful. 

As of the time of writing, the exact kind of helicopter involved does not appear to have been identified. CBP operates a number of different helicopter types, with its Airbus AS350s, Airbus EC120s, and Sikorsky UH-60 Blackhawks being among the types that fly regularly in the southwestern United States, including along the border with Mexico.

CBP

A CBP Airbus AS350 A-Star

Dan Marries of KOLD News, a local CBS affiliate out of Tucson, Arizona, reported the story, as seen in the video in the tweet below. Marries said law enforcement personnel tracked the drone for over an hour at altitudes as high as 14,000 feet. Marries even refers to the drone as "heavily modified," though it's unclear exactly how or where that claim originated. If this drone was indeed flying as high as 14,000 feet, that would rule out much of the off-the-shelf drone technology available on the commercial market and place it into a more advanced category. We are pursuing more information about what exactly was meant by "heavily modified."

According to The Associated Press, the drone appeared to have taken off from an unknown location five miles south of Tucson before flying north over the city. At some point in its flight, the craft came “dangerously close” to the CBP helicopter. The FBI is now asking for the public’s help for any information related to the incident. A FBI statement, reads in part:

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is seeking to identify the person(s) responsible for illegally flying a drone near a U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter. On February 9, 2021, at 10:30 p.m., employees of CBP informed the Tucson Police Department that a drone was flying dangerously close to their helicopter. Over the next few hours, multiple law enforcement agencies worked to locate the drone’s operator but were unsuccessful. The drone appeared to launch from an area about 5 miles south of Tucson and flew across Tucson and north over Marana. No one was injured and no other similar incidents have been reported involving this specific drone.

In 2018, The Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act included 18 USC 39B, which federally criminalizes “Unsafe Operation of Unmanned Aircraft.” Specifically, knowing or reckless interference or disruption of a manned aircraft, and the operation of unmanned aircraft in close proximity to airports. While the drone(s) did not come into direct contact with an airplane or cause a pilot to make an evasive maneuver, the actions are illegal and extremely dangerous.

Anyone flying a drone as prohibited by law can face federal criminal charges, fines, and imprisonment. It is possible the drone operator(s) are not aware they are violating the law. We encourage anyone with information to assist in this investigation to contact the FBI at 623-466-1999. Tips can also be reported to tips.fbi.gov.

While the FBI is involved, it's not clear if the US military was involved in any way in the initial incident or in this ongoing investigation given that Davis-Monthan Air Force Base sits on the outskirts of Tucson, some five miles southeast of the city. The base is home to the 355th Fighter Group, which operates 83 A-10 Thunderbolt II close air support aircraft, as well as hosting rescue, mission support, maintenance, and medical groups. The massive AMARG boneyard also sits adjacent to the base. If the reports of the drone's launch site are accurate, that would mean the drone could have taken off close to the base. Tucson International Airport also lies to the south of the city, however. Regardless, this is highly controlled airspace where an unmanned aircraft of this nature should not be freely operating.

Google Maps

Davis-Monthan AFB (red marker) occupies a large swath of land southeast of Tucson.

The incident in Tucson is only the latest in a string of events in the region in which unknown drones or otherwise unidentified aircraft have eluded law enforcement. In 2018, a Learjet reported an unidentified craft flying at 40,000 feet above Southern Arizona, an incident The War Zone was the first to report on. An eerily similar incident happened recently over New Mexico. In 2019, drone incursions occurred over Arizona's Palo Verde nuclear power plant, prompting an investigation from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Just south of Arizona, Mexican law enforcement agencies have been struggling to mitigate the threat posed by drug cartels who are increasingly turning to commercial drones to deliver improvised explosives and assassinate their enemies.

DHS OIG

More broadly speaking, in late 2019 and early 2020, Colorado and Nebraska were the sites of numerous drone sightings which remain unexplained to this day. Military installations have also seen their share of drone incursions in recent years. The THAAD anti-ballistic missile batteries in Guam as well as multiple U.S. Navy vessels have had numerous encounters with what have been reported as unidentified drones. The proliferation of commercially-available drones is presenting a significant issue for the Armed Forces, as air crews are now reporting airborne encounters with drones at an alarming rate.

In an attempt to mitigate the drone threat, the federal government penned an Executive Order earlier this year aimed at limiting the use of foreign-made drones and restricting the use of unmanned vehicles near sensitive sites. A month prior, the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA, released new guidelines on how critical infrastructure installations can prepare for and defend against drones.

Still, in a June 2020 report, the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security, the parent agency of CBP, concluded that "DHS’ capability to counter illicit UAS activity remains limited" and that drones "present an emerging threat to the Nation as their popularity grows." The report specifically mentions "harassment" as a threat category, such as buzzing a government helicopter.

DHS

As we have reported over the past several years, the threat posed by small, seemingly innocuous commercial drones and their slightly more advanced militarized siblings is rising. America's most robust air defenses weren't designed with small, low-powered, unmanned aerial systems in mind, and in many ways the United States government is playing catch-up to the rapid proliferation and evolution of lower-end drone technology. Our adversaries are well aware of this shortfall, and in some cases are developing low-end swarming drone systems designed to exploit this vulnerability, as well as other potential concepts of operation.

The War Zone is pursuing Freedom of Information Act requests in relation to this incident. We have reached out to the FBI field office in Phoenix but have yet to receive comment. We will update our reporting as the story develops.

UPDATE, 5:06 PM CST:

After publication, Dan Marries of KOLD in Tuscon provided additional information. Marries said the drone was "Modified enough to reach an altitude of 14,000, speeds in excess of 100 mph with a headwind, and range of 70 miles."

Marries also passed along his segment about the drone encounter that aired on Tucson’s KOLD News. In the segment, Marries interviews FBI special agent Nowak (no first name given), who said the drone made “erratic maneuvers” and even strayed into military airspace. According to Nowak, the helicopter had to take evasive action to avoid the drone. A police report filed after the incident stated the drone had a single green light on its underbelly, and the FBI special agent interviewed said the drone was estimated to be between four and six feet in diameter. The FBI is unsure if it was a four- or six-rotor configuration, but the agent interviewed stated the drone had to be “heavily modified” based on its speed, altitude, and endurance.

UPDATE: 12:43PM CST:

Here is the track of the Tucson Police Department helicopter duing theincident: 

Radarbox.com via Adam Kehoe

You can watch KOLD's Garnet Encinas' great report on the incident here. In it, a couple clips of official reports from the Tucson PD were included:

KOLD/Official TPD Document
KOLD/Official TPD Document

Editor's note: Hat tip to the AP's Bob Christie.

Contact the author: Brett@TheDrive.com