Drones in four near-misses at major UK airports, air investigators reveal

Pilots call for action and warn the four category-A incidents at Heathrow, Stansted, City airport and Manchester are just the tip of the iceberg

Airline pilots have called for a clampdown on drones, warning of potential disaster after four separate near-miss incidents at UK airports were reported in a single month, including one in a passenger jet taking off from London Stansted.

The pilots have called for urgent action after the four “category A” incidents in which a serious risk of a collision occurred.

The pilot of a Boeing 737 passenger jet taking off from Stansted in September said a 6ft (2-metre) long remote-controlled plane passed less than 15ft above its path, at 4,000ft, in controlled airspace where any drone flight is illegal.

Nine days later, the pilot of a Boeing 777 airliner taking off from Heathrow saw an 18-inch small drone passing “less than a wingspan” away from the plane.

Other incidents were reported around London City and Manchester airports.

Pilots believe that a collision with an airliner could be catastrophic, and that the impact of a drone strike on a light plane or helicopter would almost certainly bring those aircraft down.

The British Airline Pilots Association (Balpa) warned that the number of incidents could soar as people fly drones received as Christmas presents, often with little or no handling experience or understanding of the rules.

Existing rules on drones restrict their use in built-up areas and in controlled airspace. Small unmanned aircraft should not be flown above 400 feet or in the vicinity of airports without air traffic control approval. The UK Civil Aviation Authority rules state, “The operation must not endanger anyone or anything.”

None of the operators responsible for the recent near-misses were identified but they could have faced imprisonment, the CAA said. On Friday Balpa called for a registration system so drone users can be easily traced and prosecuted for any irresponsible flying.

Details of the four confirmed near-misses were released on Friday by aviation investigators, but pilots warned that these may be the tip of the iceberg.

The UK Airprox Board – which monitors the threat of mid-air collisions – last month investigated seven incidents involving drones, four of which were classified as being in the most serious bracket. A total of 30 incidents involving drones and unmanned aircraft were confirmed in 2015, compared to just six in 2014.

Steve Landells, a Balpa flight safety specialist, said: “The reports that UK Airprox gets are the ones that are seen. But when you’re flying at more than 100mph, the chances of seeing a typical, 18-inch wide drone are small. We don’t know if this is the tip of the iceberg. With the massive increase in drone sales, we fear we might see a dramatic rise in close calls.”

Given the number and severity of the latest reported incidents, Landells said: “It was only by pure luck there wasn’t a collision. The fact the severity and number of these incidents is rising is extremely worrying.”

He said a category-A incident in the holding pattern around Heathrow at 8,000ft was particularly concerning: “That means the problem is getting higher and drones are getting into more conflict.”

Balpa has called for more research into drone impact to match that done into the risk from bird strikes.

Landells said: “We don’t know what would happen, but because drones have hard, lithium ion batteries, if one hits a jet engine, it will not only stop it but potentially cause an uncontained engine failure, with bits of metal flying off penetrating the cabin and fuel tanks. And if a drone hits a helicopter or light aircraft that will almost certainly result in catastrophe.”

Pilots also want technology to be routinely fitted to drones to stop them flying in areas where they could meet commercial traffic

Landells said drone designers should liaise with air traffic controllers “to look at ways they can adapt drones to ensure they can be seen easily on radars”.

A CAA spokesperson said: “Anyone operating a drone must do so responsibly and observe all relevant rules and regulations. Drone users have to understand that when taking to the skies they are potentially flying close to one of the busiest areas of airspace in the world – a complex system that brings together all manner of aircraft including passenger aeroplanes, military jets, helicopters, gliders and light aircraft.

“The rules for flying drones are designed to keep all airspace users safe and anyone flouting these rules can face severe penalties including imprisonment.”

Contributor

Gwyn Topham Transport correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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