by Jack Nicas
A U.S. airliner nearly collided with a drone over Florida earlier this year, a federal official said, a near miss that highlights risks posed by the proliferation of unmanned aircraft in U.S. skies.
A pilot of an American Airlines Group Inc. regional jet told officials that on March 22 he came dangerously close to a “small remotely piloted aircraft” about 2,300 feet above the ground near Tallahassee Regional Airport in Florida, said Jim Williams, head of the unmanned-aircraft office at the Federal Aviation Administration. Mr. Williams disclosed the incident publicly for the first time at a drone conference in San Francisco on Thursday.
American Airlines on Friday said it couldn’t find evidence of the incident and declined to comment further.
“The airline pilot said that he thought the [drone] was so close to his jet that he was sure he had collided with it,” Mr. Williams said. Inspection of the aircraft later found no damage, he said, but “the risk for a small [drone] to be ingested into a passenger airline engine is very real.”
Manned aircraft normally should be at least 1,000 feet apart vertically and several miles apart laterally.
The incident appears to be the first case of a big U.S. airliner nearly colliding with an airborne drone, although there have been other occasions of aircraft pilots seeing drones in flight. In March 2013, an Alitalia aircraft approaching John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York observed a drone within 200 feet, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI on Friday said it is still investigating that incident.
The FAA said US Airways Flight 4650 from Charlotte, N.C., a 50-seat jet, was approaching Tallahassee airport when it passed the drone, which the pilot described “as a camouflaged F-4 fixed-wing aircraft that was quite small.” The drone was more similar to a model aircraft flown by hobbyists rather than a so-called quadcopter that many see as the type of unmanned aircraft with commercial potential.
It is unclear who operated the drone in the March incident, and whether it was a government or civilian group.
A Defense Department spokesman said most military drones aren’t painted with camouflage, but that he had no information about the incident.
A US Airways subsidiary that flies smaller planes on shorter routes on behalf of its parent operated the jet involved in the March incident, the FAA said. US Airways is a unit of American Airlines.
The FAA said the Canadian Regional Jet 200 operated by US Airways was flying under visual flight rules, meaning the pilots would be responsible for scanning the skies to monitor and avoid other traffic, rather than air-traffic control. Visual flight rules, which are typically used during clear weather, give pilots and controllers more leeway in directing and operating aircraft. In poor weather, air-traffic controllers are more involved in directing the aircraft.
Airliners and business jets in the U.S. are also equipped with traffic-collision-avoidance systems, which show pilots other aircraft in the area. But those systems only function for aircraft with certain transponders, which are required on big manned aircraft but not on drones.
The use of drones has surged in recent years as the devices have become smaller, less expensive and easier to fly. The FAA, meanwhile, has lagged behind in setting formal rules for drone use. Many drone users have complained about the delay.
Mr. Williams’s remarks stressed the safety risks of integrating unmanned aircraft into the complex U.S. aviation system. “It’s important to develop solutions and answers to these questions before we risk the safety of the world’s safest aviation system,” he told the conference.
Mr. Williams pointed out that a flock of birds sucked into the engines of US Airways Flight 1549 in 2009 forced the pilots to land the Airbus A320 on the Hudson River in New York. “Imagine a metal-and-plastic object, especially that big lithium battery, going into a high-speed turbine engine,” he said. “The results could be catastrophic.”
Gretchen West, executive vice president for drone trade group Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said most drone pilots fly their aircraft safely, but with the lack of clear rules from the FAA, near misses like the March incident are increasingly likely.
“A lot of people already fly [drones] without rules and regulation. It’s almost a free for all,” she said Friday. Mr. Williams “is painting a picture that this technology could threaten safety, but that goes back to the FAA. They have to come up with the rules to create a safe environment.”
In the U.S., the FAA allows recreational drone users to fly under certain safety guidelines, including that the drone remain below 400 feet. The FAA has authorized more than 500 public entities such as police departments to fly drones in the U.S., but the agency has only approved two drones to fly for commercial purposes–both off the Alaska coast. Still, a flood of companies and individuals are flying unmanned aircraft for profit anyway, according to interviews with dozens of users.
“The genie is out of the bottle because people are already flying without understanding” the risk, said Marko Peljhan, chief executive of C-Astral Aerospace Ltd., a Slovenian drone maker. “It’s a disaster waiting to happen.”
Andy Pasztor contributed to this article.
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