Drones a concern for Medlink pilots

FAA predicts 600,000 drones in sky by end of year

Medlink pilots have a lot on their mind, trying to safely navigate the skies while transporting the sick and injured to hospital care. But there’s something moving higher and higher on their list of worries while on the job.

Heath Folkedahl’s office has been in the skies for about eight years.

“My office is very neat and I get to travel a lot and see a lot of things,” Folkedahl, a pilot for Gundersen’s Medlink services said. “Our mission is get our patient the safest, quickest way possible back to the hospital.”

Folkedahl has a lot to keep track of.

“You’ve got to worry about everything outside the aircraft as well as inside the aircraft, and all sorts of other things,” he said. “Birds …”

But it’s not birds, or other planes, that’s becoming a pressing worry for him and other aviators.

“The forecast is by the end of this year, there’s going to be 600,000 drones in U.S,” said Chief Flight Nurse for Medlink Air Terri Wenthold. “They’re so small that we wouldn’t see them until they’re right in front of us, and any kind of collision even with something that small can be catastrophic.”

“Worst case scenario, it would take us out of the sky,” Folkedahl said.

New drone regulations from the Federal Aviation Administration aim to make sure all aircraft stay safely in the sky.

“If they’re following the regulations properly, they’re yielding the skies when we’re in the area,” Wenthold said.

Folkedahl hasn’t run into any drones in the airspace in the La Crosse area yet, but has in more metropolitan areas.

“Nothing extremely close, but close enough where I saw them and I went a different direction,” he said.

It makes him wonder…

“What are you doing up here?” Folkedahl asked. “They definitely shouldn’t be anywhere I’m flying.”

Worrying about drones in the air is new territory, but if there’s one thing a pilot can do, it’s navigate.

“Visually, I’m looking for anything and everything anyway,” Folkedahl said. “So that doesn’t change a ton.”

The new FAA commercial regulations put in place in August limit where and how high drone operators can fly.