FAA looks into low-flying helicopter at Penn State tailgate
Penn State said Tuesday that it has stopped using helicopters to make announcements outside the football stadium after a state police chopper flew so low over an unruly tailgating crowd that it sent tents and other items flying.
A university police spokeswoman said it won’t resume having a helicopter make crowd announcements until the issue can be fully examined.
The Federal Aviation Administration said it is looking into a complaint about the incident that occurred before last weekend’s game against Ohio State but declined to provide any details about its investigation.
Video of the helicopter posted on social media shows stunned responses by people on the ground, with the helicopter’s blades spinning not far above the pre-game revelers.
State police have said the pilot was trying to get low enough so people could hear a dispersal order over the helicopter’s loudspeaker, and increased altitude after seeing debris go flying.
FAA regulations on minimum safe altitudes for aircraft say pilots should remain at least 1,000 feet (304 meters) above congested areas or above open-air assemblies. Although helicopters can be flown lower if it can be done safely and in compliance with FAA routes and altitudes. At any event, pilots must remain high enough to be able to land without harming people or property if a power unit fails.
The university police statement issued Tuesday acknowledged concerns about the Saturday afternoon incident, and said officers were responding to “numerous law violations, including serious threats to officer safety within a disorderly crowd.”
“It is rare to resort to these expanded interventions at Penn State; however, when all other warnings from the mounted police unit and officers on the ground were ignored, a Pennsylvania State Police helicopter was deployed as another tool to compel the group to disperse and curb dangerous and unruly behavior,” university police said. “Following the use of the helicopter, the dangerous behaviors dissipated.”
Court records said 21-year-old Joseph Michael Oleynik of Derwood, Maryland, was charged with a felony of taunting or striking a police animal, as well as misdemeanor counts of resisting arrest, failing to disperse and disorderly conduct, and a summary offense of public drunkenness.
Oleynik did not appear to have a lawyer listed in court records, and he did not respond to an email sent to his Penn State account.
The arrest affidavit said a university officer on bike patrol in the Lot 23 area was called to help horse-mounted state troopers disperse a large gathering at about 4 p.m., hours before the night game’s kickoff. The bike officer, Allen Miller, said mounted police were trying to push people out of the area when Miller saw Oleynik taunt one of the horses twice, then strike it on its left side with his hand.
A trooper tried to subdue Oleynik, sustaining a broken hand in the process, but Oleynik ran into the crowd before another officer was able to grab him, Miller alleged. He resisted by putting his hands under the bulk of his body, but was arrested after a short struggle, Miller wrote. He smelled of alcohol, his speech was slurred and his eyes bloodshot, Miller said.
Penn State police said the incident is still under investigation and additional charges are expected.
State police have said troopers on the ground were pulled back to de-escalate the situation before the helicopter was called in.