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Sweeney: Keeping the skies safe

Five aircraft hovered above a busy Southern California freeway in July while a wildfire, burning out of control, torched cars and frightened motorists ran for their lives.

These weren't firefighting aircraft. They were hobby drones.

And their presence kept helicopters carrying water at bay for 20 minutes as smoke and flames swept across Interstate 15, the main highway between San Diego and Las Vegas.

An unfortunate lapse in judgment by owners of a new, high-tech toy?

No. This is just one example of an increasingly common problem for firefighters and pilots of private and commercial aircraft that must be addressed before the threat becomes a tragedy.

In Fresno this summer, an air ambulance pilot reported a near collision with a drone that came within 25 feet of his helicopter. Fifteen close calls have been reported so far this year at Mineta San Jose International Airport, with four at SFO and one at Oakland. Just last week, a Southwest flight arriving at Los Angeles International Airport was buzzed by a drone.

Across the country, the Federal Aviation Administration said, pilots are reporting 100 close calls a month. Drone encounters were unheard of before last year.

Cal Fire reported just two drone sightings in 2014. This year, the agency is regularly grounding spotter planes, air tankers and helicopters because of the risk of a mid-air collision in the smoky, windy conditions that prevail above an active wildfire. During the Rocky fire, which burned almost 70,000 acres in Lake and surrounding counties in August, a rogue drone passed within 50 feet of a Cal Fire airplane.

'The most immediate and critical issue we face is the serious threat that these drones pose with the irresponsible use of them,' Cal Fire chief Ken Pimlott said at a legislative hearing in August. 'It is placing our air crews, our pilots, in immediate danger.'

The air space above an active fire typically is closed by the FAA, and drone owners aren't supposed to fly their aircraft above 400 feet or within five miles of an airport without permission.

Violators are subject to civil penalties that can add up to thousands of dollars.

That is, if authorities can identify the violator.

Unlike cars and motorcycles and airplanes and helicopters — and even commercially operated drones — hobby drones aren't subject to registration. No license plate, no tail number, no obvious way to track down a drone pilot who flouts safety rules, endangering other people.

That may have been a rarity five years ago when hobby drones were a curiosity.

But the market for these miniature aircraft is exploding. Sales are expected to top 700,000 units this year, a 63 percent increase over 2014. Shall we just trust all of these new pilots to follow the rules — or even to learn the rules? I think not.

Besides interference with firefighters and close encounters with commercial aircraft, there are reports of drones peeping into backyards (a Kentucky man shot one down), smuggling contraband into prisons and crashing into buildings. An 11-year-old girl was injured by flying debris after a drone crashed into a building in Pasadena this year.

The registration plan announced this week by the U.S. Department of Transportation is a sensible response to a serious problem. 'There can be no accountability if the person breaking the rules can't be identified,' Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Monday.

It's also a measure response. Requiring owners to register will establish a check-in point where they can learn the rules. Because transponders aren't part of the proposal, authorities won't be able to identify pilots unless their drones crash or are shot down. If registration work, potentially costly transponders may be the next step. It's a simple matter of accountability.

Jim Sweeney is assistant editorial director for The Press Democrat. Email him at jim.sweeney@pressdemocrat.com.

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