Report: Commercial Jet Almost Taken Down by Drone in Florida

Friday, 09 May 2014 07:28 PM

By Cathy Burke

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A U.S. Airways regional jet came dangerously close to a potentially "catastrophic" midair collision with a remote-controlled drone over the Florida Panhandle, news reports said Friday.

A pilot reported the March 22 incident to the Federal Aviation Administration, James Williams, chief of the agency’s unmanned aircraft office, said in a speech at the Small Unmanned Systems Business Exposition in San Francisco. The speech was posted to YouTube.com, and reported by The Wall Street Journal.

According to The Journal, U.S. Airways Flight 4650 from Charlotte, N.C., a 50-seat jet, was approaching the Tallahassee airport, flying at an altitude of 2,300 feet, when it passed a drone described by the pilot "as a camouflaged F-4 fixed-wing aircraft that was quite small."

"The airline pilot said that he thought the [drone] was so close to his jet that he was sure that he had collided with it," said Jim Williams, head of the unmanned-aircraft office at the FAA, The Journal reported.

Inspection of the airliner after landing found no damage — but officials said a collision with a drone could be as frightening, and as potentially "catastrophic," as a jet flying into a flock of birds, USA Today reports.

"The risk for a small [drone] to be ingested into a passenger airline engine is very real," Williams told The Journal.

Geese that flew into the engines of a U.S. Airways plane out of LaGuardia Airport in 2009 forced the jet into the icy Hudson River in a landing by now-retired pilot Chesley Sullenberger nicknamed the Miracle on the Hudson.

According to FAA regulations, drone operators are required to get an experimental airworthiness certificate that precludes the operator from flying at certain times and in certain areas, Business Insider reports.

The government has also limited the operation of model airplanes to altitudes of less than 400 feet and away from airports and all air traffic.

The FAA has said it plans to propose rules by the end of the year governing civilian drones weighing less than 55 pounds, which have grown in popularity as prices fall and the crafts become more widely available.

American Airlines, the parent of U.S. Airways, is investigating, spokesman Matt Miller told USA Today.

"The safety of our passengers and crew is our top priority," Miller said. "Any information will be shared with the FAA as part of our normal procedures, and we will not comment on any matter that may be under investigation."

The Journal reported 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 Friday told The Journal it’s still investigating.

And the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported last month that a rescue helicopter service evaded a drone flying too close.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau is investigating the incident, which happened at around a thousand feet as the chopper returned to its Newcastle base. The agency said the crew was forced to take evasive action to avoid a collision as the drone tracked toward them.

Bloomberg news contributed to this report.

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