According to a criminal complaint filed November 18 in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, Andrew Rene Hernandez confessed in an FBI interview in October to his ill-advised night launch around midnight on September 18, when city police converged on a pharmacy near the defendant’s Hollywood residence.
“Hernandez was curious, got his drone, and flew his drone to see what was going on,” the criminal complaint states, recounting the defendant’s statement to FBI Special Agent William Richau. “He stated that it is hard to see the drone at night, but that he recalled seeing the drone’s green light facing him as it was ascending. As the drone was ascending, Hernandez looked down for a couple of seconds at the drone controller, which was attached to his phone. As Hernandez looked up again at his drone, he saw the drone being ‘smacked’ by the helicopter, which was hovering. Hernandez stated that the drone went down and landed at a nearby residence.”
The falling quadcopter broke the rear window of a 2020 Toyota Corolla near the pharmacy where police had converged to investigate a burglary call. It was found by city police officers, who recovered “gray plastic pieces of the drone,” along with the camera and digital memory card.
Los Angeles police operate the largest fleet of municipal law enforcement helicopters in the country, and the flight safety officer of the LAPD Air Support Division told the FBI that, “based on his observations of the LAPD helicopter after it was hit by the drone, he believed that, if the drone had struck the helicopter’s main rotor instead of the fuselage, it could have brought the helicopter down.”
The flight crew told the FBI that they had seen the drone and attempted to avoid it by climbing. The drone struck the helicopter’s fuselage near the nose. The flight crew returned to Hooper Heliport, where the LAPD is based, and made an “emergency landing.”
As the police helicopter crew departed the scene of the burglary investigation to land and inspect damage to the helicopter, city police scoured the area for the drone, at the helicopter crew’s request, and soon found it, or what was left of it. Some parts had come to rest inside the damaged car, others on the street. A witness pointed police to Hernandez’s residence, telling them that drones were frequently flown from that residence.
One piece of recovered wreckage had a serial number, according to the complaint, and the aircraft’s digital memory card was also collected by city police. U.S. Magistrate Judge John McDermott issued a warrant October 1, authorizing the search and recovery of the digital contents of the drone. Richau, who has been stationed at Los Angeles International Airport since 2016 and joined the newly formed FBI Wildland Fire Counter-Unmanned Aircraft Systems Team in July, recovered images from the memory card that showed Hernandez, his car, and his residence. A search warrant for the defendant’s residence was issued October 21, the criminal complaint states.
The U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California announced Hernandez’s arrest November 19, and noted that Hernandez is believed to be the first person in the country to face a criminal charge for unsafe operation of an unmanned aircraft. Hernandez faces up to one year in prison if convicted of the misdemeanor.
Hernandez is not the first drone pilot to carelessly fly into a collision with a helicopter or other aircraft, however; he is not even the first to do so in Los Angeles. The NSTB concluded in July, after forensic analysis, that the object that a news helicopter struck in December 2019, leading to a forced landing, was most likely a drone.
At the time, that incident was one of six known or probable collisions involving manned and unmanned aircraft in U.S. airspace. Other notable parallels include a 2017 collision involving a DJI Phantom that was flown, by a recreational pilot, thousands of feet beyond the pilot’s possible line of sight and collided with a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter that was on patrol protecting the United Nations General Assembly.
To date, only one of these midair drone collisions with manned aircraft has involved a remote pilot certificated under FAR Part 107. Federal records show Hernandez does not hold any FAA pilot certificate.