The danger of drones

On their final approach to JFK Airport last Sunday (November 14), the pilots of two different passenger aircraft spotted an unmanned drone flying at 3,000ft close to the airport.

The pilots of Virgin Atlantic flight 9 from London described it as a slow moving drone “like a quad copter”, while those at the helm of a Delta 737 arriving from San Diego confirmed that it came “within feet” of their aircraft’s wing.

What’s even more frightening is that this wasn’t an isolated case.

Just a few days before, the pilots of a Jet Blue aircraft reported a drone flying at around 300ft on the final approach to JFK. And while local police sent a helicopter to search for drone, it had disappeared.

Meanwhile in the UK, an unmanned drone was flown deliberately in to the path of an ATR landing at Southend airport in May.

The consequences of a large drone hitting an aircraft while it is landing or taking off would be similar to a bird strike – potentially catastrophic. But while a bird is an uncontrollable entity, these inexpensive drones pose a significant safety risk and are being bought and flown by hobbyists.

Aviation authorities have, of course, banned their use near airports, but these near misses clearly demonstrate that not only are these rules are being flouted, but that regulators have yet to find a way to rigidly enforce them.

And rigidly enforce them they must. The FAA expects that 10,000 of these drones to be flying in the US in just five years’ time. That’s 10,000 extra hazards that the commercial aviation sector doesn’t need.

The news that the FAA can now fine “reckless and careless” pilots of drones under the same rules as they do any other pilot is great, but new legislation designed to deal specifically with UAVs and their pilots is still many months away.

The incidents at JFK throw into sharp relief just how important it is that these rules are written and that regulators find a way to enforce them.

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