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Are drones flying over Avon Park?

AVON PARK, Fla. -- In two county commission meetings, Dale Pflug has asked if the U.S. Air Force is flying drones outside the Avon Park Air Force Bombing Range.

"Four people have told me that they have seen drones flying over their houses.

The colonel didn't debunk it, so I'm assuming it has to be somewhat of possibility," said Pflug, a former U.S. Air Force radar operator in Japan between the Korean and Vietnam conflicts.

The answer is no, Buck MacLaughlin said Thursday. Military training partners may bring drones, but they don't fly over civilian airspace.

"There are no -- what the Air Force calls -- remotely piloted aircraft assigned to the installation. They are not allowed in the national airspace system." MacLaughlin said.

As a lieutenant colonel, MacLaughlin was the former base commander. Now a civilian, he is the director of operations for training missions conducted at the bombing range.

Pflug asked the question last month with MacLaughlin in the audience and got no response. On Tuesday, Pflug rose again from the audience. He told MacLaughlin and current base commander Lt. Col. Paul Nielander that four citizens spotted drones near their homes in northeast Highlands County, flying noisily and low to ground.

Although he didn't inquire how high they were flying, Pflug said Thursday the drones were full-sized aircraft.

Neither MacLaughlin nor Nielander replied in the meeting, but Pflug asked the same question in the hall. He said MacLaughlin replied that training partners can use drones there. "He said they wouldn't be leaving the footprint of the bombing range itself, but there could be drones coming across from Cape Canaveral."

"I don't have any direct knowledge of operations out of Cape Canaveral," MacLaughlin said Thursday. However, Federal Aviation Administration rules prohibit drone flights. Model aircraft flights are allowed with a 400-foot ceiling, if they are away from populated areas and full-scale aircraft, and are not for business purposes.

"Many of the units that do their training here utilize those systems," MacLaughlin said. "They're mostly hand launched or shoulder launched, but as with the manned aircraft, they are required by the FAA to stay inside our restricted airspace." Drones are trucked, not flown to the base, he added, and Predator drones don't come to Avon Park.

Some drones are as small as model airplanes; some are large military aircraft.

Most drones aren't shaped like civilian or military aircraft, they look experimental: the rear-engine Predator has a bulbous cabin, no windows, and tail fins under the body.

If the military isn't flying drones in civilian areas of Avon Park, what did those four people see?

"I personally don't want to cast any doubts on what people claim to see," MacLaughlin said. "There are a number of radio-controlled aircraft you can buy on Amazon like a quad copter. I do know that there is a little landing field just north of Avon Park. It may be off of County Road 17, where local radio-control airplane group flies. I've never been out there."

There are more possibilities, Pflug said: NATO training missions at the base, the National Security Agency, Homeland Security, the CIA and the county sheriff's offices.

On Thursday, Chief Deputy Mark Schrader said Highlands County Sheriff's Office doesn't have a drone.

Polk County detectives have the sort of quad-motor helicopter that can be bought at Best Buy but rarely use it, said spokeswoman Carrie Horstman.

Pflug said he doesn't have a problem with the military mission or the sheriff's office using drones.

"Not if they use them for the purpose of tracking criminals. But if they're flying over Tanglewood for no reason, now they're invading my private airspace. I have an objection to governmental surveillance of public areas."

Drones over civilian areas, Pflug said, "Represent an invasion of privacy. I'm uncomfortable, based on my own experience in the military and what I know about Homeland Security."

gpinnell@highlandstoday.com

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