Surge in small drones making airline pilots nervous
WASHINGTON — Pilots across the United States have reported a surge in near-collisions and other dangerous encounters with small drones in the past six months at a time when the Federal Aviation Administration is gradually opening the nation’s skies to remotely controlled aircraft, according to FAA records.
Since June 1, commercial airlines, private pilots and air-traffic controllers have alerted the FAA about at least 25 episodes in which small drones came within a few seconds or a few feet of crashing into much larger aircraft, the records show. Many of the close calls occurred during takeoffs and landings at the nation’s busiest airports, presenting a new threat to aviation safety after decades of steady improvement in air travel.
Many of the previously unreported incident reports — released Wednesday by the FAA in response to long-standing public records requests from The Washington Post and other news organizations — occurred near New York and Washington.
The FAA data indicate that drones are posing a much greater hazard to air traffic than had been recognized.
The FAA had publicly disclosed only one other near-midair collision between a drone and a passenger aircraft — a March 22 encounter between a US Airways plane near Tallahassee and what the pilot described as a small, remotely piloted aircraft at an altitude of 2,300 feet.
On Sept. 30, air traffic controllers at LaGuardia Airport in New York reported that Republic Airways Flight 6230 was “almost hit” by a brightly colored small drone at an altitude of 4,000 feet as the passenger plane was descending to land. On Sept. 8 at LaGuardia, three regional airliners — ExpressJet, Pinnacle and Chautauqua — reported “very close calls” with a drone within minutes of one another at a height of about 2,000 feet as they were preparing to land.
On July 29, a US Airways shuttle flight that had departed from Reagan National Airport in Washington reported an extraordinarily narrow encounter with a yellow drone with a four-foot wingspan that suddenly passed within 50 feet of the aircraft while it was approaching LaGuardia.
In Washington, Porter Airlines Flight 725 from Toronto was descending to Dulles International Airport at an altitude of 2,800 feet on June 29 when it reported that a black-and-silver drone zipped past, just 50 feet away. On June 1, a United Airlines flight originating from Rome alerted the control tower at Dulles that a four-engine helicopter drone interfered with its descent and passed just 100 feet underneath the Boeing 767.
The 25 near-midair collisions were among more than 175 incidents in which pilots and air traffic controllers have reported seeing drones near airports or in restricted airspace. Pilots described most of the rogue drones as small camera-equipped models that have become increasingly popular with hobbyists and photographers.
Although such drones often measure only a few feet in diameter and weigh less than 10 pounds, aviation safety experts say they could easily trigger an accident by striking another plane’s propeller or getting sucked into a jet engine.
“The potential for catastrophic damage is certainly there,” said Fred Roggero, a retired Air Force major general who was in charge of aviation safety investigations for the service and now serves as a consultant to companies seeking to fly drones commercially.
Several near-midair collisions have been reported by pilots of rescue helicopters used to transport patients needing emergency medical attention.
A Life Flight helicopter in Pottsville, Schuylkill County, reported Nov. 19 that it was descending at 2,400 feet when a flight nurse in the co-pilot seat suddenly yelled: “Watch out!” A small drone was flying straight toward the rescue helicopter “at a high rate of closure,” according to a report that the crew said it filed with the FAA.
The pilot was forced to make a sharp banking turn to the right to avoid a collision, according to the report. The crew estimated that the drone passed within 50 to 100 feet.
Under FAA guidelines, it is legal for hobbyists to fly small drones for recreational purposes, as long as they keep them under 400 feet in altitude and five miles away from airports.
Flying drones for commercial purposes is largely prohibited.