Pilots report four drone near misses in a month in UK
Airports and pilots want tighter regulations after incidents involving jets near Shard in London and at Liverpool airport
Pilots have reported four near misses in a month between drones and passenger aircraft, including one flying near the Shard in London and another at Liverpool airport, prompting aviation experts to warn that increasingly popular and sophisticated models available to hobbyists are posing a serious risk.
The near misses were recorded by the UK Airprox Board, which said aircraft coming in to land at Heathrow had reported three drone near misses in three days, including one where the pilot could identify the brand of drone that came within 100 metres (328ft) of his aircraft “because his son had the very same model”.
Steve Landells, a safety officer at the British Airline Pilots Association (Balpa), told the Guardian that near misses had been happening most frequently on landing and takeoff, and pilots said they were a dangerous distraction.
“Even if you don’t have a collision, the fact that you have a distraction at a critical point, that’s dangerous,” he said.
The incident at Liverpool airport involved a passenger jet that was taking off narrowly avoiding a collision with a drone, which came within 5 metres of the aircraft’s wingtip.
The pilot spotted the large, black and yellow drone immediately after the Airbus A319 took off, but it was so close there was nothing he could do to avoid it, he told a UK Airprox Board review, which found that “chance had played a major part” in avoiding a collision.
The drone pilot could not be located. But members of the air safety board who wrote a report on the incident said it should have been obvious that the unmanned vehicle was endangering the passenger jet, “even if the operator was not ‘aviation-minded’”.
In another incident close to the Shard, a drone flying at 1,500 metres came within 20 metres of an Airbus A320 on its descent into Heathrow. The pilot had no time to take any steps to avoid a collision and only luck prevented a crash, the board found. Under civil aviation rules, unmanned aircraft must be within the eyesight of the operator, which is usually held to mean an altitude of 120 metres.
In all the near misses, police were alerted, but the drone operator could not be traced. Several pilots complained that they had spotted the drones when they were busy preparing to land.
There has been a steep rise this year in reports of drones flying near passenger jets. The UK Airprox Board received reports of 56 such incidents up to October, compared with 29 in all of 2015 and six the year before.
In April, a pilot claimed his British Airways Airbus A320 had been hit by a drone as it came in to land at Heathrow, although the then transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin later told MPs the incident was unlikely to have been a collision with a drone.
Drone technology has advanced rapidly in recent years, and improved battery life and range mean models that claim they can be controlled from up to 3 miles (5km) away are available for less than £1,200.
Heathrow and Balpa have called for stronger regulation against civilian drones. Last month, a Heathrow spokesman said: “Anyone operating an unmanned aerial vehicle has an obligation to know the rules and ensure they are capable of operating it safely. Doing so in proximity to an airfield or aircraft is illegal and clearly irresponsible.
“Stronger regulation and enforcement action must be a priority for the government to ensure that the airspace around British airports remains among the safest in the world.”
Landells has previously warned of the “potential for catastrophe” posed by increasingly powerful drones being flown near airports.
“Pilots are pressing for better education and compulsory registration, during which the rules are made quite clear, and more high-profile prosecutions of offenders,” he said.
“We would like to see drones fitted with technology that would stop them being flown in the wrong places, automatically make them move out of the way if they get too close to other aircraft and, as a last resort, alert air traffic control and pilots of their presence so avoiding action can be taken to prevent a collision.”
He said the effects of a drone crashing into a jet were unknown, although Balpa is conducting a study into what would happen if one hit a windscreen. “If a drone goes into the engine, we are pretty sure the engine will stop. Will that cause the aircraft to go down? Probably not, but it reduces the safety margin to an unacceptable level,” he said
A drone colliding with a helicopter would be more dangerous, Landells added, particularly over a builtup area. “We have a real worry that if a drone is flown in conflict with a helicopter rotor blade, the blade will shatter. If it made contact with the tail rotor, it would lose control,” he said.
Mike O’Donoghue, the chief executive of the General Aviation Safety Council, which represents pilots covering gliders, rotocopters and small aircraft, said: “It’s a concern for our members, but the question is, what can be done?”
He called for measures including blocking technology to prevent drones from flying near sensitive areas, such as airports.