Man arrested and charged with flying drone at the Goodwin Fire

This article first appeared on Wildfire Today.

Gene Alan Carpenter
Gene Alan Carpenter

A man was arrested in Prescott, Arizona for flying a drone into the airspace near the Goodwin Fire that as of Friday had burned over 25,000 acres southeast of the city.

Gene Alan Carpenter, a 54-year-old from Prescott Valley, is accused of endangering 14 aircraft and ground personnel with a “substantial risk of imminent death or physical injury” by flying a drone near or over the fire. All firefighting aircraft had to be grounded for about an hour on Wednesday, June 28.

In 2016 Arizona passed a law making it illegal to fly a drone that interfered with emergency or law enforcement efforts. It is likely that a Temporary Flight Restriction was in effect over the fire at that time which would make it a violation of federal law for any aircraft to invade the space without permission.

If a drone collided with a firefighting helicopter or fixed wing aircraft it could cause great harm especially if it hit a windshield or engine. And if the aircraft crashes, killing the pilots, firefighters on the ground would also be in danger from the falling debris.

The safety of firefighters is compromised when all of the helicopters, lead planes, air attack, and air tankers are grounded, preventing the aircraft from slowing the fire so that firefighters can move in and construct fireline. When aircraft and ground personnel disengage, homes and private property could be destroyed that might otherwise have been saved with an aggressive firefighting attack. Some air tankers when grounded by an intruding aircraft can’t land with a full load of retardant, so they have to jettison it, wasting thousands of dollars worth of the product.

On June 24 multiple witnesses reported seeing a man operating a drone at the Goodwin Fire standing next to a white van.

Below is an excerpt from an article at 12news:

The sheriff’s office said based on witness information, drone descriptions and photos from Carpenter’s website showing drone views of the Goodwin Fire, deputies began searching for him.

Carpenter was arrested Friday afternoon after an off-duty deputy spotted his van on Willow Creek Road in Prescott. The drone was found in the van and seized.

Detectives are meeting with federal officials Monday to discuss additional charges based on the federal statutes regarding temporary flight restrictions.

Mr. Carter is in custody at Yavapai County facilities at Camp Verde, Arizona charged with 14 counts of endangerment, all felonies, and one misdemeanor.

Loading the DC-10’s at Phoenix

The video describes the process of reloading the DC-10’s with fire retardant at Phoenix Gateway-Mesa airport while they were fighting the Goodwin Fire 80 miles northwest of the airport. For a while this week all three DC-10 Very Large Air Tankers were working out of the tanker base and dropping on the Goodwin Fire.

Small squadron of VLAT’s attacked the Goodwin Fire Wednesday

Three very large air tankers, DC-10’s that carry 11,600 gallons of fire retardant, assisted firefighters on the Goodwin Fire in Arizona Wednesday, reducing the fire’s intensity around endangered structures.

As of Thursday morning the fire had burned 24,828 acres at Mayer, Arizona.

The DC-10’s are often used on wildfires, but there are only three of the “Very Large Air Tankers” on contract with the federal government, and it is unusual for all of them to be working the same fire. They were reloading with retardant at Phoenix Mesa-Gateway airport 80 miles southeast of the fire.

Rick Hatton, President and CEO of 10 Tanker Air Carrier, said their three DC-10’s completed a total of 14 sorties to the Goodwin Fire during 16 total hours of flying Wednesday. He said the facilities and crews at the air tanker base accommodated the three huge aircraft very well.

Two of the aircraft are on exclusive use contracts with the U.S. Forest Service, and a third is on a call when needed contract.

Even though $2.4 million was spent in 2014 to improve the apron and plumbing at the air tanker base at Prescott, 15 miles from the fire, it was not designed to handle Very Large Air Tankers. But it can accommodate the “large” or “heavy” air tankers, such as the aircraft that can carry 2,000 to 3,500 gallons, including the P2V, BAe-146, RJ85, MD-87, 737, and C-130.

To improve the tanker base, the City of Prescott agreed to accept a $1.44 million grant from the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) which was combined with $1 million from the U.S. Forest Service. The USFS funds were used to add new plumbing infrastructure and a taxiway.

The changes increased the number of loading pits from two to three. The ADOT grant covered 90 percent of the cost of the apron project, and the City of Prescott supplied the additional 10 percent.

Below are photos of the Prescott air tanker base ramp before and after the modifications.

Air tanker base ramp Prescott Airport
Air tanker base ramp at the Prescott Airport, June, 2010. Google Earth.
Air tanker base ramp Prescott Airport
Air tanker base ramp at the Prescott Airport, November, 2015. Google Earth.

As you can see below, Prescott makes a good temporary home for the helicopters working the Goodwin Fire.

An illegally operated drone flew into the fire area Wednesday, forcing all firefighting aircraft to be grounded for safety reasons. Law enforcement responded and is investigating the incident. Hobbyist drone operators are reminded that “if you fly, we can’t fly.” There is a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) over the fire area and it is against federal law to fly a drone within the restricted area. This also happened on the Brian Head Fire in Utah Wednesday, as well as the Lightner Fire in California.

In the video below you will see what appears to be a privately owned Blackhawk helicopter, a Firehawk, dropping retardant on the Goodwin Fire. Most of the time helicopters drop water directly on the flames, but the long term retardant can be effective when applied ahead of the fire.

Another helicopter dropping retardant: