Extreme turbulence. Drunk passengers. Birds in the engine. Jerks with laser pens. Bombs in underpants. Missiles fired from war zones. Catastrophic mechanical failure. As if airline pilots (and passengers, too, for that matter) don’t already have enough to think about, buzzing into view comes the unmanned aerial vehicle, an increasingly popular machine that must be causing aviation bodies around the world rising concern.
In the latest of several known such incidents, a quadcopter appeared to be flown deliberately at a passenger plane in the UK as it came in to land at Southend airport, about 25 miles (15 miles) east of London.
The potentially disastrous incident took place in May though has only just come to light. The UK’s Airprox Board, which works to maintain safety in the skies above Britain, said in a report released in the past week that the remotely operated flying machine came “very close” to hitting the aircraft’s right wing.
The pilot of the 75-seat AT72-500 plane spotted the quadcopter at an altitude of about 460 meters (1500 feet) and assessed the risk of collision as “high.”
Airprox’s report said the co-pilot believed the drone had been flown “deliberately close to the AT72 because he had seen it around 100 meters away as it approached from the right-hand side and made a turn to fly in the opposite direction to his aircraft, around 25 meters away and at the same level.”
According to a transcript of the incident, air traffic controllers were already aware of “a couple” of other reports of quadcopters flying in the vicinity of the airport prior to this latest occurrence. Despite a search of the area and inquiries at local model aircraft flying clubs, the operator of the drone in Airprox’s report is yet to be traced.
Unfortunately this isn’t the first incident of its kind and almost certainly won’t be the last. Back in May the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) confirmed that a US Airways passenger plane came close to colliding with an unmanned aerial vehicle.
The incident occurred at about 700 meters (2300 feet) near Tallahassee Regional Airport in Florida. In this case, the pilot of the 50-seat plane judged the remotely operated flying machine to have been a hobbyist’s model aircraft rather than a quadcopter.
FAA official Jim Williams said at the time that the drone had come so close to the passenger aircraft that the pilot was “sure he had collided with it.”
Williams insisted that “solutions and answers [for drones]” are urgently needed “before we risk the safety of the world’s safest aviation system.”
He added that if an unmanned aerial vehicle is ever sucked into an aircraft’s engine, “the results could be catastrophic.”