Phoenix/ Crime & Emergencies
AI Assisted Icon
Published on February 22, 2024
"Top Gun" Turbulence F-35 Pilots Duck and Dodge Drone Danger Above Arizona DesertSource: U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Donald R. Allen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Arizona's skies have become an aerial obstacle course for Air Force pilots as unmanned drones have intruded into restricted military training airspace. Reports indicate that, in a spate of events that took place from October 2022 to June 2023, Air Force jets, including advanced F-16 and F-35 fighters, encountered or collided with drones at least 22 times. One such event involved an F-16 pilot who, according to an FAA Unmanned Aircraft Sightings report, had the "rear of canopy struck by an orange-white UAS" while operating within restricted area R2301E, "Approx 46 WSW GILA BEND." The incident took place on January 19, 2023, with the extent of the damage still unknown, and thankfully, no injuries were reported, as noted in a statement obtained by

Most of these drone sightings occurred within a 100-mile radius of Luke Air Force Base, but three of them, including where the collision with the F16 happened, were reported over "restricted area R2301E." This airspace lies above the Barry M. Goldwater Range, known for being a training ground for F-35 pilots. Luke Air Force Base, staying tight-lipped about the drone incidents, according to

The reasons behind these drones breaching restricted airspace have sparked concern and various theories. Mike Canada, chair of the unmanned aerial vehicle program at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, discussed the seriousness of the matter in an interview with, likening a drone collision to "a bird strike" and warned, "You hit it at the right place on the fuselage or the cockpit area, yeah, you could bring down the aircraft." Canada also raised the possibility of either a hobbyist seeking footage or a foreign entity trying to gather intelligence. He noted that reaching an altitude of 20,000 feet, as some F-35 pilots reported seeing drones, would be very difficult for a consumer drone.

The elusive nature of these drone encounters raises security concerns, echoed in a 2022 report by the Director of National Intelligence stating that "unidentified Aerial Phenomena events continue to occur in restricted or sensitive airspace, highlighting possible concerns for the safety of flight or adversary collection activity." This report cited by comes after the arrest of a Chinese citizen in Virginia for flying a drone over a Naval shipyard. Officials remain vigilant, accepting that drones pose a tangible risk to the safety of military personnel and the security of the nation's airspace.