Drone almost hits medical helicopter carrying patient to Fresno hospital

A drone nearly collided Wednesday with a medical helicopter that was taking a snake-bite victim to a Fresno hospital, authorities said.

The helicopter was flying 1,000 feet above the ground about 1 p.m., when the pilot spotted a large drone in its flight path, said Todd Valeri, whose company operates the SkyLife Air Medical chopper.

The pilot swiftly turned to avoid the drone, missing a potential catastrophe by about 20 feet, he said.

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“It was definitely alarming to have something that close to you in an aircraft,” said Vince Ellis, a flight nurse who was attending to the patient on board. The drone was about 4- to 6-feet wide, he said.

The near-collision occurred about two miles north of Fresno-Yosemite International Airport, where the police force is investigating the incident, said Ian Gregor, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman.

The chopper had picked up the patient at Mono Hot Springs in the Sierra and, despite the brief detour, completed its trip to Community Regional Medical Center in downtown Fresno, Valeri said.

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During his 25-year career, Valeri said his crews are more accustomed to dealing with hazards posed by lasers – not drones.

“We’ve flown thousands of missions safely,” Valeri said. “This is the first case of encountering a drone.”

He opined that medical choppers are more likely to encounter aerial hazards such as drones since they don’t fly in traditional flight paths of commercial planes.

“This is lifesaving work,” Valeri said. “Lives weigh in the balance.”

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