On February 9, 2021, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) helicopter encountered what was described as a “highly modified drone” hovering in controlled airspace above Tucson, Arizona. A Tucson Police Department (TPD) helicopter was called in to aid the CBP aircraft in its pursuit of the small aircraft, but the drone, or whatever it was, was able to outrun both of them as it flew through military airspace, deftly maneuvered around both helicopters with bizarre agility, and ultimately disappeared into cloud cover above the altitude the helicopters could safely fly. A police report previously obtained by The War Zone showed that the TPD crew described the drone as “very sophisticated/specialized” and “able to perform like no other UAS” they had previously encountered. Now we have the actual audio from the CBP helicopter’s interactions with air traffic controllers in Tucson during the incident, as well as audio from an after-action call between the TPD crew and the air traffic control tower.
From the conversations heard on the recordings, which The War Zone obtained from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), it’s clear that all parties involved with the incident were baffled by the drone’s performance, noting that it appeared “super sophisticated” and possibly satellite-controlled. If you haven't yet caught up on the Tucson mystery drone saga, be sure to read our most recent reporting.
In the air traffic control (ATC) recording of the 70-minute long incident, the CBP helicopter crew member can be heard describing the drone as a “dim flashing light,” and also notes that he cannot track it while wearing night-vision goggles. In the call, the helicopter crew repeatedly identifies the drone’s location as directly above Davis-Monthan Air Force Base or the fuel tanks just west of the base. The crew can also be heard wondering what the unmanned air vehicle’s (UAV) size might be, repeatedly stating that its high speed and impressive maneuverability made it difficult to get a decent visual identification.
Throughout the hour-long pursuit, the law enforcement aircrews can be heard saying that the mystery craft was essentially playing with them by repeatedly positioning itself directly above their helicopters’ rotors, some 1,000 feet above them. At one point (around 60:55 in the runtime of the recording below), the air traffic controller says "we filed this up as high as we can" and "we did call Washington," presumably meaning a federal office in Washington, D.C., quite possibly the FAA national headquarters.
The entire call can be heard here:
In the second recording, a phone call between Air Traffic Control tower at Tucson International Airport and the TPD helicopter crew recorded the day after the encounter, the helicopter crewman notes that the drone maintained a speed of 75 knots in a 30-knot headwind. “So you think it was a drone?” the Tucson tower employee asks during the call. “Yeah was definitely a drone,” the TPD helicopter crew member replies. “I just couldn’t tell you - I couldn’t give you its dimensions as it was moving... too sketchy for us to... I assure you it was not a quadcopter, and it was the most advanced drone we’ve dealt with over the last decade here. Its abilities were pretty incredible, um, I just - I can’t tell you exactly its size.”
The Tucson tower employee then asks if it could have been a larger UAV like an MQ-1 Predator. “It’s not aircraft-sized,” the TPD helicopter crew member replied. “From what I can tell just from its position light, you know, I would have to imagine it was larger than a quadcopter, and I guarantee you it was nothing like a quadcopter from how long it was up - it has to be satellite-driven because there’s no line-of-sight, there’s no cell phone coverage that could have dealt with that, so it has to be satellite-driven, which is pretty freakin’ sophisticated.” The helicopter crew member then laments not being able to apprehend the craft, saying he really wanted to see what type of technology was aboard the drone.
You can hear the full audio of the call below:
In addition to these audio recordings, The War Zone has obtained the FAA's Air Traffic Mandatory Occurrence Report filed the day after the incident occurred. The report, filed by the crew of the CBP helicopter, contains a summary detailing the encounter:
PILOT OF TROY164 (AS50) REPORTED A NMAC ON FREQ 118.3. REPORTED UNKNOWN UAS LESS THAN 100 FEET, 12 O'CLOCK. HAD TO DESCEND IMMEDIATELY AND TURN TO AVOID. MADE 360'S TO LOCATE THE DRONE. DID LOCATE THE DRONE ABOVE HIM AND TRACKED IT UNTIL AIRE 2 ARRIVED. DRONE CIRCLED BETWEEN BOTH HELOS AND CLIMBED UP TO AND ABOVE AN ESTIMATED 12000 FEET AND TRAVELED 10 MILES NORTH/NORTHEAST TOWARDS MT. LEMMON. PILOTS UNABLE TO FULLY IDENTIFY TYPE OR COLOR OF DRONE DUE TO NIGHTTIME CONDITIONS AND MANEUVERABILITY OF UAS. ATTEMPTED TO CAPTURE CAMERA FOOTAGE BUT UNABLE, PURSUED FOR OVER 60 MINUTES UNTIL CONTACT LOST IN VICINITY OF MARANA AIRPORT.
We continue to pursue our investigation of the Tucson “mystery drone” and will update our reporting as more information comes to light. Thanks again to Dan Marries of KOLD News, a local CBS affiliate out of Tucson, Arizona, who initially broke the story and has provided additional details to The War Zone.
Contact the author: Brett@TheDrive.com