Tucson police chase of mystery drone in Feb. mirrored 2016 incident

drone Tucson police

The mystery surrounding the super drone that pursing police pilots in Tucson called “pretty freaking sophisticated” as it outran and outmaneuvered them last February remains near complete. But new reporting indicates that incident wasn’t the first time authorities in the region encountered the craft ­– or another souped-up UAV just like it.

As with virtually all the groundbreaking information on the saga since it was first acknowledged by FBI officials in May, the new input comes from The Drive’s War Zone reporter Brett Tingley. Using Freedom of Information Act requests for archived Air Traffic Mandatory Occurrence Reports, Tingley discovered that a strikingly similar police chase of an eerily comparable mega-drone was filed in 2016 in virtually the same area around Tucson’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base (DMAFB). 

In both cases, a UAV with a single flashing green position light attained remarkable speeds and altitude levels to leave chasing helicopters in its dust before vanishing.

In February, that occurred after a drone nearly collided with a Customs and Border Patrol helicopter above Tucson before 11 p.m. As described  herehere, and here, a serpentine, 70-mile pursuit then ensued for over an hour at speeds exceeding 100 mph, and altitudes of up to 14,000 feet. Despite being joined by a Tucson Police helicopter, pilots never got a decent look at the craft as it buzzed around them in what one officer described as a nose-tweaking evasive display of agility and speed before it dashed off into a cloud bank.

The 2016 incident records obtained by the War Zone contain details an ambulance helicopter’s December 26 report of a drone flying about 100 feet below its own 1,000 foot altitude – more than double the maximum allowed by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules. The encounter occurred just before 11 p.m., well after the FAA’s 30-minutes-after-sundown limitation for UAV flights at that time. As happened this year, a Tucson Police chopper was dispatched to help track the craft, which – like the one in February ­– repeatedly changed altitude as it ditched chasing authorities. The report describes it, too, as being “lit by a green position light and was of rotor variety.”

Both incidents occurred near DMAFB – a restricted airspace that the February drone returned to repeatedly as it zigzagged away from official aircraft on its tail. Both events ended when the enigmatic UAV involved zipped off to the west of Tucson’s city limits. Both began at roughly the same time: 10:46 p.m. this year, and 10:58 p.m. in 2016. And just to make the similarities really unnerving, the Tucson Police helicopters scrambled to join in those chases over four years apart both wound up operating under the callsign “Air02.”

All just coincidence? Possibly, since very little is known about the mysterious super drones in both Tucson police pursuits.

But War Zone notes that its own UAV Geography tool, which compiles FAA UAV incidence reports between 2015 and 2020, registers 32 of those strange sightings in the same area of Tucson where the two mystery craft put on their show. Meaning either the restricted airspace over DMAFB has an inexplicable magnetic pull for rogue drone pilots, or whoever was at the controls of the shadowy craft seemed to regard it as home.

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