An air traffic control recording confirms that a New York Police Department helicopter flew at a drone hovering near the George Washington Bridge earlier this week—not the other way around. What's more, police had no idea what to charge the drone pilots with, and never appeared to fear a crash with the drone.
Two men, Wilkins Mendoza and Remy Castro, both of New York City, were arrested Monday on felony reckless endangerment charges after the NYPD said the two flew their drone "very close" to a law enforcement chopper, causing the police helicopter to take evasive maneuvers. Air traffic control recordings from LaGuardia airport posted by the website liveatc.net suggest that only happened after the chopper pilot decided to chase the drone.
"You know, we have the guys who were operating them. We really don’t know exactly what we have, maybe a reckless [endangerment]. Not sure what exactly we got," one of the officers on the recording said. "Seems to me, if they were at 1,000 feet, they'd have to be operating that thing recklessly, regardless of whether or not it was a toy."
Motherboard wasn't able to confirm the identities of the police officers in the recording. Liveatc.net regularly posts air traffic control recordings from around the country.
Initial reports and police statements suggested that the two were arrested for nearly crashing into the police helicopter. There's nothing in the recording to suggest that the helicopter pilot ever feared he'd crash, and there's nothing in the recording to suggest that a near collision is the reason the two were charged. The officer flying the helicopter originally believed it was a military drone.
To be sure, flying at 2,000 feet in New York City is incredibly stupid. But flying a police helicopter at a drone is at least as reckless. The police also suggest that the drone went from 0-2,000 feet in "less than two seconds," which is absurdly fast and almost certainly impossible with the DJI Phantom drone the pair was flying.
Here's how it went down:
At around 11:55 PM on Sunday night, NYPD contacted Air Traffic Control with reports of an aircraft that could "do vertical climbs pretty fast."
The copter followed the drone closely and then said the drone was flying above the helicopter.
"He has to be military. He's moving. He's right over top of us now, LaGuardia. He did a 180 really quick," the police officer said on the recording. "Going down the East River at this time. I just want to make sure it's not a drone."
An air traffic controller said there's "really gotta be a better way to maybe disable these guys."
The police officer in the copter confirmed it was, in fact, a drone. The Phantom is a popular, ready-to-fly drone sold online for around $500. The copter followed the drone while police on the ground found the pilots and booked the two men. At first, the narrative was that the pilots chased and nearly crashed into the police drone.
The New York Daily News caught up with one of the pilots and the brother of one of the pilots, who said that the police were "endgangering themselves."
"We have video proof that we are not following him, he's following us. He's endangering our lives and himself by following us," Jonathan Castro, one of the pilot's brothers, told the Daily News. "He's wasting taxpayers money following a little drone. He's wasting taxpayers' money. It's not our fault it's not illegal."
The air traffic control report suggests Castro's account is closer to the truth than the original NYPD narrative.
Here's a full transcript of the recording:
NYPD—What kind of contact do you have … at this time.
Tower—What do you mean, what kind of contact?
NYPD—I don’t know. We just had an aircraft do vertical climbs pretty fast.
Tower—I don’t see anything on the radar. About how high would you say it went?
NYPD—I'd say 0 to about 2,000 [feet] in less than two seconds. And he's got green and red now. He's going up Spuyten Duyval [bridge], northbound at this time.
Tower—Really? I don’t see anything on the radar. Im not seeing anything like that.
NYPD—He has to be military. He's moving. He's right over top of us right now, LaGuardia. He did a 180 really quick. Going down the east river at this time. I just want to make sure its not a drone.
Tower—I’ll look out the window.
NYPD—LaGuardia we are 800 feet and he is level with us at this time.
NYPD—Going Spuyten Duyval to the [George Washington Bridge]. He's got to be a drone.
NYPD—He's got red and green lights. Hes trucking, hes moving fast. LaGuardia, definitely a drone. Hes going up the streets now between buildings.
Tower—Ok, all right. Man, theres really gotta be a better way to maybe disable these guys.
NYPD—We are going to stay here and figure out where he puts it.
Tower—Take your time, you’re the only ones in the air.
NYPD—Will do. Yeah, we got drone activity at the GW Bridge. We are trying to walk an RMP [remote mobile patrol] into it. We got the guys operating it on the ground. Hopefully we can get these guys collared up.
Tower—In the vicinity of the GW? They were at the GW. Now I got three, four, coming up to Fairview and 193, vicinity of.
Tower—All right, you want me to do anything from here.
NYPD—Nope, just letting you know.
NYPD—Ok we got these guys are saying these are just toys but these drones were flying in vicinity of [George Washington Bridge]. They buzz around us as well.
Tower—All right what altitude were you guys at.
NYPD—These things were well over 2,000 feet. They were above us at 1,000.
Tower—You still have a visual.
NYPD—No, we've got custody, we've locked the [radio mobile patrol police cars] into them. You know, we have the guys who were operating them. We really don’t know exactly what we have, maybe a reckless. Not sure what exactly we got.
Tower—All right 10-4.
NYPD—Just so you know there was a class given to lt perez, I don’t know if you want to disturb him or not, but he had all the info on that.
Tower—All right 10-4 thank you.
NYPD—Tiny little, we got them on the ground now. Tiny little drones with four blades on it. But, yeah, It was all the way over the GW. Now we are all the way over at Spuyten Duyval flying two miles away to 2,000 feet.
NYPD—They are with them right now, but we don’t even know what we have.
NYPD—Definitely, we just don’t know what kind of crime we have right now.
NYPD—Seems to me, if they were at 1,000 feet, they'd have to be operating that thing recklessly, regardless of whether or not it was a toy.
Again, not very bright to fly a drone near a bridge—but reports that the drone actively flew at the police helicopter appear to be outright false.