On the morning of Aug. 10, Margaret Breffeilh, owner of Elevated Ballooning, was flying a hot air balloon with two passengers near the Teton County Fairgrounds in Driggs. At the same time, a man on the ground worked the controls of a drone he wasn’t familiar with.
He was an inexperienced operator flying a drone within 5 miles of the Driggs-Reed Memorial Airport without contacting air control, which in itself is illegal. Software in his drone warned him of the proximity of the airport but he overrode the warning and sent the device skyward.
Then he made his second mistake: He lost sight of the nearby balloon on his monitor and didn’t realize that he was driving the drone repeatedly into the fabric of the balloon, shearing off its propellers until it dropped and became entangled in the balloon’s load lines. Destroyed, the drone then fell to the ground.
“It was like an alien encounter,” Breffeilh said. “I had no control over it and couldn’t get away from it.”
Fortunately, the drone didn’t damage the balloon; Breffeilh had recently replaced the fabric on the part of the envelope that the drone struck. Her passengers stayed calm and after they’d safely landed, they helped her find the drone operator. He was a nice guy, she said, and very contrite.
“This case was lucky but there were so many factors that could have made it worse,” she added. “People need to realize that this is a big deal.”
Breffeilh didn’t report the incident to the sheriff’s office, even though the operator had broken federal laws; instead, she filed a report with the National Transportation Safety Board in the hopes of turning the accident into an opportunity for education and growth for drone pilots, manufacturers, balloonists and the Federal Aviation Administration.
When she filed the incident report, NTSB asked her how it felt to have the first drone versus balloon collision on record. Breffeilh knows from others in the ballooning community that such incidents have occurred before and gone unreported, but in the case of this collision, there was substantial evidence of the crash, including video footage, and the drone pilot was very cooperative with the investigation. She also alerted the local aviation center about the issue.
“The FAA took a lot of interest in this case,” Driggs airport administrator Lori Kyle said. “The fear is that more scenarios like this could pop up. They’re still feeling their way out on how to regulate to prevent major accidents.”
She said outreach and education are a large component of her job as airport administrator.
“We’re going to try and raise general awareness as well as awareness specifically about this type of operation,” Kyle said. “There are lots of opportunities at the airport for people to get an introduction to aviation.”
One big question to consider is where in the county drone pilots can safely practice flying. On the city of Driggs website is a map of a 5-mile radius circle around the airport, as well as a notification form for unmanned aerial systems (including drones). Hobby operators agree to several regulations including not receiving money for flights, not flying when manned aircraft are nearby and not flying over people or structures. Kyle said the city has had quite a few drone pilots submit their notification forms to comply with the rules.
As a certified balloon pilot, Breffeilh uses aircraft radio to communicate with air control and other manned aircraft in the area. Commercial drone pilots operate under the same regulations, but hobbyists sometimes have only a vague understanding of the rules.
Breffeilh said the incident has caused her to take a firm stance on drones at balloon rallies.
“I love the images they produce, but with multiple balloons in the air, there’s no guarantee that a drone doesn’t get lost in there,” she said.
Her other concern is that even if only skilled, certified drone pilots fly at rallies, that doesn’t stop casual pilots from seeing that and replicating it. She clarified, however, that she’s not anti-drone; she knows drone operators who have taken the time to learn about usage and rules.
“Lots of drone pilots go through the proper channels and I respect them for that,” she said.
After a very thorough investigation, the NTSB sent a draft report to Breffeilh, which will soon be available to the public in its final form. Now that the draft report has come in, Breffeilh said she thinks it’s time to start talking about the collision with a wider audience.
“I hope this incident helps create a conversation of respect for nature, the airspace, and rules and regulations,” she said.