Photo courtesy Harold Nelson
Harold Nelson was out on the airfield around 11:10 a.m. on March 31, when he saw the PAE Resolute Eagle, a unmanned vehicle that weighs well over 100 pounds, flying from east to west.
This sight wasn’t unusual to Nelson, who owns and operates Pendleton Aircraft Service, an airplane and helicopter repair business, near the Pendleton airport.
But according to Nelson, the drone’s flight looked “wobbly” before it suddenly veered north, “away from the center of the airport,” and crashed to the ground from a height of about 200 to 400 feet.
“It looked like a loss of power and control,” he said Monday.
PAE, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Pendleton Unmanned Aerial System Range have all confirmed that the crash caused a small fire. No one was hurt and nothing was damaged during the incident.
The drone crashed in a wheat field on airport property and a picture Nelson took from his plane shows a black, scorched blot where the wheat caught fire.
Despite confirmation from the range, the company and the federal government, official details on the crash remain scarce beyond the basic sequence of events.
Range Manager Darryl Abling said PAE is still reviewing data on the incident and holds daily meetings with range officials to discuss the crash. Although PAE is expected to provide a report to the test range with the cause of the crash and the measures it will take to prevent it from happening in the future, Abling declined to comment until it’s released.
Although the Pendleton Fire Department was the agency that extinguished the fire caused by the crash, Fire Chief Mike Ciraulo declined to talk about the fire and referred all questions about the incident to Abling.
Abling said Ciraulo’s referral was in line with the range’s process manual, which requires one person be appointed a public information officer to avoid the spread of misinformation and speculation.
Ciraulo did comment on Fire Station No. 3, the facility at the airport that the fire department maintains but does not staff.
Per FAA rules, the department houses its aircraft rescue and firefighting truck and a foam-spraying rig from the Oregon Office of State Fire Marshal.
Although Cirualo said the vehicles are capable of putting out fires for aircraft of any size, responding to an emergency at the airport is also about bringing in the right personnel.
Fire Station No. 3 is typically unstaffed, but Ciraulo said the two to four firefighters usually staffed at Fire Station No. 2 on Southgate are close enough to the airport to respond quickly.
Ciraulo said the department has sent staff to the airport fire station in anticipation of important UAS tests, such as the Project Vahana air taxi’s first test flight, but he estimates that has only happened a couple of times.
Despite being an eyewitness to the dangerous crash, Nelson is supportive of the UAS industry.
“It’s growing by leaps and bounds and we need to embrace it,” he said.
Contact Antonio Sierra at email@example.com or 541-966-0836.