Small Unmanned Systems Business Exposition. According to a FAA official: airline flight had close call with drone in March

A US Airways commuter flight nearly collided with a drone in March near the airport in Tallahassee, Fla., according to a Federal Aviation Administration official.

Jim Williams, head of the FAA’s unmanned aircraft office, told a conference that the pilot of a regional US Airways flight saw a camouflage-painted drone fly so close to the airliner that “he was sure he had collided with it.”

The incident, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, happened March 22 above Tallahassee Regional Airport.

“He reported what appeared to be a small, remotely piloted aircraft at approximately 2,300 feet in the air,” Williams said Thursday at the Small Unmanned Systems Business Exposition in San Francisco.

Inspection of the airliner after landing found no damage.

“The risk for a small (drone) to be ingested into a passenger airline engine is very real,” Williams said. “The results could be catastrophic.”

A US Airways flight out of New York’s LaGuardia airport was brought down in 2009 by geese that flew into the engines, in an incident nicknamed the Miracle on the Hudson, Williams noted.

The FAA wasn’t able to identify either the drone, which had a piston engine and resembled an F-4 Phantom jet, or its pilot involved in the March incident. The incident involved PSA Airlines Flight 4650, a CRJ-200 aircraft, which operated as a US Airways commuter flight from Charlotte, N.C.

The FAA said it is working aggressively to develop rules for drones, with six designated test sites to resolve questions about ensuring safe flights with airliners. Anyone flying a drone within five miles of an airport is supposed to notify the airport and the air-traffic control facility, the FAA said.

“The FAA has the authority to pursue enforcement action against operators who endanger the safety of the national airspace system,” the agency said. “The FAA has the exclusive authority to regulate the airspace from the ground up, and a mandate to protect the safety of the American people in the air and on the ground.”

The FAA is developing rules for drone operation under a congressional deadline of September 2015. Some the issues that regulators must resolve are how to ensure that pilots of drones and passenger planes know where aircraft are and that they remain separated.

“The risk from unmanned aircraft is not limited to just people on the ground,” Williams said.

American Airlines, the parent of US Airways, is aware of the published report and is investigating the incident, according to spokesman Matt Miller.

“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.”

Source: USA TODAY


An unmanned aircraft almost struck a US Airways flight over Florida in March, a pilot told the Federal Aviation Administration, highlighting safety concerns as U.S. regulators develop rules for civilian drone use.

The Bombardier Inc. CRJ2 regional jet was about 5 miles from Tallahassee Regional Airport at an altitude of 2,300 feet (701 meters) when it passed by what appeared to be a remote-controlled aircraft, the FAA said in a statement today.

American Airlines Group Inc. (AAL), which includes US Airways, is aware of media reports about the incident and is investigating, Casey Norton, a spokesman, said in an e-mail.

There have been at at least six other incidents since September 2011 in which pilots have reported close calls with what they believed were small unmanned aircraft, according to NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System, which logs safety issues. The FAA doesn’t allow drone flights, other than by hobbyists, unless it has granted a special permit.

The drone in March came so close to the airliner that the pilot “was sure he had collided with it,” said James Williams, chief of the FAA’s unmanned aircraft office, said in a speech yesterday at the Small Unmanned Systems Business Exposition in San Francisco. “Thankfully inspection to the airliner after landing found no damage, but this may not always be the case.”

The pilot said it appeared the drone was a high-end model built to look like a fighter jet and powered with a small turbine engine, according to the FAA. Such model planes are capable of reaching higher altitudes than drone copters and may cost thousands of dollars.

Hudson Miracle

The FAA investigated the Tallahassee incident and couldn’t locate the unmanned aircraft or the pilot, according to the statement.

The FAA has said it plans to propose rules by the end of the year governing civilian drones weighing less than 55 pounds (25 kilograms), which have grown in popularity as prices fall and the crafts become more widely available.

An industry committee assisting the FAA on the rule has proposed these small drones be kept away from airports and populated areas and limited to no higher than 400 feet.

Williams, whose speech was posted to YouTube.com, compared the Florida incident to the Jan. 15, 2009, water landing in the Hudson River of a US Airways Group Inc. aircraft that struck a flock of geese. No one died in the accident known as the “Miracle on the Hudson.”

“Imagine a metal and plastic object, especially that big lithium battery, going into a high-speed turbine engine,” Williams said. “The results could be catastrophic.”

Williams’ speech was reported earlier by the Wall Street Journal.

FBI Investigation

Williams also cited drone accidents, including a small helicopter that struck a woman participating in a triathlon in Australia this year.

The March incident highlights the need for FAA to move slowly as it develops rules to ensure the safety of unmanned flight, he said. The current rules for pilots and air-traffic controllers preventing mid-air collisions become more difficult when the person flying the plane is on the ground, he said.

The FAA and law enforcement have investigated other cases in which drones got too close to traditional aircraft.

Pilots on an Alitalia SpA Boeing Co. (BA) 777 nearing New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport reported a drone helicopter came within about 200 feet on March 4, 2013. The Federal Bureau of Investigation opened an investigation.

An unidentified airline flight into La Guardia Airport in New York flew about 500 feet (152 meters) above a small black drone in July 2013, according to an Aviation Safety Reporting System report. The plane’s mid-air collision warning system didn’t alert them to the danger, the pilot reported. The other five incidents reported to NASA involved private aircraft.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Levin in Washington at alevin24@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.netRomaine Bostick

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