In February 2021, a Customs and Border Protection helicopter encountered a puzzlingly capable drone in the skies over Tucson, Arizona, that was able to perform like no other unmanned aerial vehicle the aircrew had previously witnessed. That helicopter called in assistance from another belonging to the Tucson Police Department, but the unmanned aircraft was able to outrun them both.
In air traffic audio obtained by The War Zone, the drone’s capabilities were described as “incredible” and “pretty freakin’ sophisticated” by the helicopter crews that pursued it. To date, the craft remains unidentified, but it has been described as a large quadcopter-like platform featuring a single, dimly lit green position light. The two aircrews that pursued the unmanned aircraft also said it was incredibly agile, with a long endurance and a high flight ceiling. All this, combined with what appeared to be an uncanny level of situational awareness, enabled it to essentially fly circles around both of the experienced helicopter crews.
In our continuing investigation of the Tucson mystery drone, The War Zone was able to obtain an Air Traffic Mandatory Occurrence Report through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that shows the unexplained drone sighting wasn’t the first of its kind to occur within the same airspace. In 2016, a nearly identical incident happened in the air over Davis-Monthan Air Force Base (DMAFB). In the earlier incident, a Tucson Police Department (TPD) helicopter also encountered an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) featuring a single dim green position light. Just as in 2021, this mystery drone was able to outrun the law enforcement helicopter as it fled westward out of the city.
While this new information doesn’t shed any light on the drone's configuration or the identity of its operators, it shows that, for some reason, the airspace above DMAFB attracts a certain type of visitor that is able to easily evade both local and federal law enforcement agencies.
The newly obtained Air Traffic Mandatory Occurrence Report states that on December 20, 2016, Arizona Lifeline 1, a Bell 407 air ambulance helicopter flying under the callsign "LFLN1," contacted the Tucson Approach TRACON (U90) air traffic control (ATC) facility. LFLN1 reported a UAV “ahead and to the left about 100 feet below” as it was flying around 1,000 feet above ground level (AGL). The ATC towers at DMAFB and Tucson International Airport were notified, and a nearby TPD helicopter was called in to pursue the unknown drone, which is described in the report as a “rotor variety” UAV. The report shows the LFLN1 crew was operating under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) at the time of the incident, which took place at 05:58 UTC, or just before 11:00 PM local time.
Coincidentally, the TPD helicopter involved in this 2016 sighting was operating under the callsign “Air 02,” the same callsign as the one involved in the 2021 mystery drone incident. Air 02 pursued the drone westbound out of the city, which changed its altitude repeatedly as it fled the law enforcement aircraft. Eventually, Air 02 had to terminate its pursuit for reasons not stated in the report.
The incident was not recorded as a Near Mid-Air Collision, or NMAC. The full description of the encounter as written in the FAA report reads as follows:
LFLN1, B407, TRANSITIONING NORTH OF OMA, ENCOUNTERED A UAV AHEAD AND TO THE LEFT ABOUT 100 FEET BELOW HELICOPTER WHILE BEING APPROXIMATELY 1100 AGL. INFORMATION WAS FIRST REPORTED TO OM TOWER AND THEN REPEATED TO TUCSON APPROACH. A SECOND HELICOPTER WAS IN THE VICINITY OPERATED BY TUCSON POLICE DEPARTMENT. AIRE02, B06, OPERATED BY TPD FOUND AND FOLLOWED UAV AS IT CLIMBED AND DESCENDED WESTBOUND WELL ABOVE 1000AGL FOR SOME TIME BEFORE FINALLY TERMINATING PURSUIT. UAV WAS DIMMLY [sic] LIT BY A GREEN POSITION LIGHT AND WAS OF ROTOR VARIETY AS OBSERVED BY POLICE.
The 2016 and 2021 drone encounters in Tucson share several stark similarities. For one, they both occurred in close proximity to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. In both incidents, the drone appeared to be a rotorcraft lit by a single dim, green position light. The UAVs in these incidents were both able to easily evade law enforcement helicopters, flying westward out of the city limits. The Tucson Police Air Support helicopter Air 02 was involved in each encounter, which both took place at roughly the same time at night: 10:46 PM local time in 2021 and 10:58 PM in 2016.
Arizona has been the site of several unexplained or unlawful drone incidents in recent years. In 2020, The War Zone was the first to report on a troubling set of encounters above the Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant, which the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) referred to as a "drone-a-palooza." The incident not only highlighted the potential for major intelligence-gathering operations on critical infrastructure via drones, but also for a future "adversarial attack" on energy infrastructure.
Earlier this month, an official government report detailed that an attempted drone attack on energy infrastructure was suspected to have occurred when an off-the-shelf DJI Mavic 2 quadcopter with a copper wire suspended underneath was recovered from a Pennsylvania power substation. The Joint Intelligence Bulletin about the incident published by the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Counterterrorism Center stated that the DJI drone was "likely intended to disrupt operations by creating a short circuit to cause damage to transformers or distribution lines."
In addition, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has been reporting on illicit drone activity taking place in Arizona from across the border with Mexico since at least 2016, when 30 pounds of marijuana were discovered in Yuma in what was described as the “first drone drug incursion detected by CBP.” Drones were discovered to have dropped narcotics in two more incidents in Yuma in 2020, one in May and one in November.
In our reporting related to the Colorado and Nebraska mystery drone flap of late 2019, friend of The War Zone Douglas D. Johnson obtained internal FAA emails between Joshua Holtzman, serving then as Acting Deputy Associate Administrator for the FAA’s Office of Security and Hazardous Materials Safety, and other employees of the FAA. In an email dated January 15, 2020, an individual with a Nebraska.gov email address whose identity has been redacted stated to Holtzman that “it appears Arizona may now be experiencing what we went through.” Holtzman shortly after wrote to other FAA investigators to state that “Nebraska State Patrol informed me this morning activity was significantly down in Nebraska but he had been informed by the Nebraska Information Analysis Center that the Arizona Center had reached out to them, reporting similar activity now in Arizona.”
Our own UAV Geography tool, which is derived from UAV sighting reports published by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), shows over 370 reported incidents occurring in Arizona between 2015 and 2020, with 32 taking place in Tucson where the green-lit “mystery drone” has been seen. In the most recent quarter in which data has been recorded (April to June 2021), 42 incidents were reported to the Federal Aviation Administration in Arizona alone.
We continue to investigate the Tucson mystery drone encounter. For now, the addition of this new ATC Mandatory Occurrence Report shows that the bizarre incident earlier this year may not have been as isolated as was presumed.
Contact the author: Brett@TheDrive.com