ATC Tapes Reveal Capabilities Of Mystery Drone


The Drive has posted ATC audio of a bizarre police chase in the skies over Tucson last February that, beyond the security and safety concerns, had all involved wondering just what they were witnessing. As we reported last May, the FBI was called in to investigate the mysterious encounter, which included an aerial tour of Davis Monthan Air Force base and ended when the drone shot up to 10,000 feet never to be seen again. The tower tapes (the recording is 70 minutes) reveal just how sophisticated and capable the aircraft was. “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,” a police helicopter crew member said in the tapes.

The encounter began with the rogue aircraft flying around a Customs and Border Patrol helicopter, at times toying with it by hovering just above the CBP aircraft’s rotors. The federal government helicopter was joined by one from the Tucson Police Department and they played cat and mouse for more than an hour. The helicopters ran low on fuel. The drone showed no signs of running out of power after at least 70 minutes of high-speed flight with lots of maneuvering. The FBI says it still has no idea what the aircraft was or who operated it but the crews in the helicopters traded speculation over the radio. “It has to be satellite-driven because there’s no line-of-sight, there’s no cellphone coverage that could have dealt with that, so it has to be satellite-driven, which is pretty freakin’ sophisticated,” a police crew member said on the tapes.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. “… hovering just above the CBP aircraft’s rotors.”

    Yikes! Brings back memories of the Senator Heinz crash, where his Aerostar was sucked into the rotor suction of a helicopter.

    Seems like the drone operator wasn’t aware of helicopter aerodynamics? (That the drone could be sucked into the rotor.)

    And if satellite driven, how was the drone able to control “formation” altitude differential so closely and so quickly? (Latency in sat communication.)

  2. I think you missed the point – it was the most sophisticated drone they have come across, they speculated it was satellite driven really means satellite communications as there was no cell service and they surmised there was no line of sight since they played cat and mouse for over an hour so the Geo location changed rapidly. No one was worried about it getting sucked into the rotor blades, they were too busy getting a lesson taught to them.

    The most intriguing parts. outrunning and out maneuvering not one but two turbine helicopters, for over an hour, that is a huge amount of energy as the helicopters were running low on fuel so they RTB. Somewhere there are some three letter agencies hoping the technology is ours.

    • It is not so astounding for a fixed wing liquid fuel craft. Don’t call Elon just yet. Let’s see some video.

  3. A “drone”? This has all the makings of a classic UFO encounter which of course it was. The question is who is responsible? Is there a cogent description of the object? Was it another “Tic Tac”? Is the assumption that it was man made and operated? Someone needs to call Elon Musk about that kind of energy storage. AZ has been a hotbed of UFO activity for decades, is this just another example?

  4. “…aerial tour of Davis Monthan Air Force base…satellite communication…”
    Could be an SIR operation.