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D-H Airborne Ambulance Warns of Drone Dangers

  • A DHART helicopter inbound with a patient that was airlifted from the Ascutney area, Tuesday afternoon, December 21, 2016. The air ambulance service has expressed concern about the proliferation of drones sharing the same airspace where they conduct missions. (Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — John J. Happel

  • DHART EMTs Steve Metheny, left, and Richard Colfer, approach the aircraft to help unload a patient being transported to the hospital on Tuesday afternoon, December 20, 2016. The air ambulance service runs approximately 1,400 air missions a year and has expressed a growing concern over the proliferation of drones sharing the airspace. (Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • DHART Communications Specialist Tom Perron looks at a realtime map monitoring all of the EMS transport helicopters in the northeast inside the DHART Communications Facility, Tuesday afternoon, December 20, 2016. One of the challenges posed by drones is that they do not show up on radar. (Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to John J. Happel

  • Star Tribune photographer Brian Peterson's drone and controls are displayed in Stillwater, Minn., March 12, 2014. (Brian Peterson/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT) Brian Peterson

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 12/26/2016 11:40:57 PM
Modified: 12/28/2016 3:02:18 PM

Lebanon — Families who found a drone under the Christmas tree may have some flight patterns, and federal law, to think about.

Six weeks ago, flying on a course toward a patient needing emergency medical care, the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Advanced Response Team helicopter passed uncomfortably close to another aircraft: a remotely operated drone.

For Kyle Madigan, director of DHART, the near-miss served as a wake-up call.

“Drones pose a unique safety hazard,” he said. “We don’t see them on any radar, we can’t communicate with them, and so they are an unknown to us.”

Drones, also referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles and unmanned aircraft systems, are likely to become more prevalent in the skies above the Upper Valley, with the Federal Aviation Administration projecting annual sales nationally to increase from 2.5 million units in 2016 to 7 million in 2020.

Area drone enthusiasts are quick to caution new users to exercise care and abide by FAA regulations when flying their machines, which if they weigh more than 0.55 of a pound also have to be registered with the government.

“I just hope that people are responsible with them,” said Corinth resident Brad Salon, who received his first drone in the mail two weeks ago.

“All it’s going to take is a few bad accidents for restrictions to get stricter,” Salon said, citing an August incident in which a drone struck two women at a wedding in southern New Hampshire.

Fellow drone owner Braxton Freeman, who serves as air-traffic manager at Lebanon Municipal Airport, is keenly aware of the risks they pose.

“It is not a toy,” he said. “It can cause damage and injury to people.”

FAA regulations require recreational drone users to notify both an airport operator and the air traffic control tower about flights within 5 miles of the airport, and other prohibitions near busy airports may apply.

Drones are also restricted from the airspace surrounding power plants, prisons and helipads, such as the one at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. Excepting those with special permits, drone users may not fly their machines above 400 feet, or outside their field of vision.

Some users, however, whether through ignorance or indifference, break these rules. Madigan said DHART helicopter pilots have encountered five drones, including the one in Hanover, flying well above the 400-foot limit.

DHART’s staff sometimes encounter other airborne obstacles, such as people hang-gliding off Mount Ascutney.

“The issue with the drones,” Madigan said, “is they are so small and they’re so hard to see.”

And the consequences for hitting one could be dire.

“Crashing into a drone could realistically cause us to crash,” he said.

Despite their attendant risks, drones have a number of attractive applications. “They’re a very useful tool in search and rescue and surveillance,” Freeman said. “It’s a great tool to do aerial photography.”

Seth O’Brien, of Cabot, Vt., has parlayed his passion for drones into an ongoing project to capture aerial footage of each of Vermont’s 200-plus towns; he and his girlfriend, Gwen Considine, have visited about 80 so far.

Upon choosing a town to shoot, O’Brien will often study its topography online.

“Usually beforehand I’ll look at Google Earth to make sure there’s a safe, open space for take-off and landing,” he said.

Earlier this year, he and Considine spent a day gathering video of the Upper Valley, starting south of White River Junction, then traveling up Route 5 all the way to Bradford, Vt. One of his favorite places to shoot is Groton State Forest, particularly during fall foliage season.

Brian Boland, owner of the Post Mills Airport, contacted the FAA to ask whether he could exempt visitors from the rule restricting drone flight within five miles of an airport, but got conflicting answers.

Boland’s not overly concerned. “We’re small potatoes,” he said.

Drone technology captivates the 67-year-old.

“It amazes me they can do what they do so simply or cheaply,” Boland said.

One photographer brought to the airport a drone that reminded Boland of a trained dog.

“It hovered in midair, waiting for the next command, and I thought, gee, that’s bizarre,” he said.

Salon likewise spoke of the advanced technology embedded in drones, from sets of satellites to collision-avoidance mechanisms.

“If it loses connection it’ll go to a pre-established GPS point and carefully land itself,” he added.

To Boland, drones are nothing new, just more sophisticated versions of the radio-controlled craft that enthusiasts have flown for decades. He so enjoyed watching a neighboring family’s child pilot a drone above his airfield that the family bought him one.

“I’ve flown it down the length of the building,” he said of the main structure at the Post Mills Airport. “The top floor is 200 feet long, and it didn’t hit too much.”

Gabe Brison-Trezise can be reached at

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