The past two Monday nights, as many as five hovering aircraft that reportedly look like unmanned drones have been seen flying over Daniel Island, the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood of Hobcaw Point, and the Wando Welch Terminal at the Port of Charleston. So far, nobody has given a public explanation for what they are or who is flying them.
Frank Heindel, a Mt. Pleasant businessman, says his son was at the Hobcaw Yacht Club around 1 a.m. on Tues. July 29 when he saw glowing lights zipping over the Wando River. The next Monday night, Aug. 4, Heindel walked out on the dock around 10 p.m. and saw a repeat performance from the mysterious vehicles, which he says appeared to be flying in some sort of formation. Heindel pulled out his cell phone and started shooting video, which he later posted to YouTube:
Heindel says he shot video of the aircraft from 9:55 to 10:30 p.m., although he saw the aircraft flying for more than an hour. According to Heindel, the aircraft had a V-shaped or triangular "stealth-like" construction and a wingspan of 30 to 40 feet. After scrolling through a few pages of Google Images results for drones, he said the craft most closely resembled the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator, an unmanned aerial vehicle that the U.S. military has used for spying and bombing missions in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, and — most recently — in last week's airstrikes in northern Iraq.
"You go out there and you can see four of five of these things flying around. Two or three of them might be doing little circles over Daniel Island, another one's flying by the Wando Terminal, and the other one might be in another location on the Wando River somewhere," Heindel says. "And then you can see them landing somewhere west of Daniel Island, going down real slow, landing somewhere over on the Charleston peninsula. I could see them going down on the treeline of Daniel Island ... They all had the same kind of flight pattern coming back down."
Heindel filed a Freedom of Information Act request last week with the Charleston County Aviation Authority demanding any information on drones being flown in county airspace. The agency confirmed that it had received his request, but he has not received a response yet.
Meanwhile, the Post and Courier did some calling around last week to the Charleston International Airport, Boeing, the Coast Guard, the State Ports Authority, and the Federal Aviation Administration to see if anyone else had a record of the drones flying over Mt. Pleasant and Daniel Island. No dice. All of the contacts told the P&C that they had no knowledge of any unmanned vehicles being flown in the area.
The City Paper called the public relations office at Charleston Air Force Base this morning and received the following response from 1st Lt. Christopher Love: "I've confirmed that we do not fly drones out of Charleston. I'm not sure what he's seeing."
Several photographers in the area now fly drones to take aerial photos, so we e-mailed and called a few of them to see if they knew anything about the aircraft. Jeff Nickles of Drone Cam Aerial Photography sent the following response via e-mail:
"Not me, strange though. It doesn't appear to be the small commercially available units. The sound is not one that would come from an electric drone — it sounded like a jet. Also, the smaller hobbyist drones typically have a maxed out flight time of 20 minutes.
City Councilman Gary White, whose district includes Daniel Island, says he is not aware of any companies or government agencies testing drones in District 1. "I don't know anything specific about any drones, but I do know there are several people out here who have some drones they use recreationally around Governor's Park," White says.
The same goes for County Councilman Herb Sass, who lives down the street from Heindel in Hobcaw Point. He says the county owns a few smaller drones with cameras on them, but nothing on the scale of what Heindel described. "If there's big ones like that out there, I would guess they've got to be either the government or some corporation," Sass says. "You have to have a lot of money to operate those kind, and you have to have a place to land them and take off."
(By the way, if Heindel's name sounds familiar, it's because he has already established himself as a public watchdog with a bit of a Luddite streak. In 2010, he filed Freedom of Information Act requests to perform a "citizen's audit" of technical errors in ES&S iVotronic electronic voting machines, which are widely used in South Carolina, ultimately concluding that the machines were "suspect at best and completely faulty at worst." Charleston County Board of Elections Director Marilyn Bowers resigned her post in the midst of Heindel's investigation, and Heindel later pushed the county board to revert to an all-paper ballot system. The all-paper initiative didn't gather a lot of momentum, but the board has considered updating its electronic system.)