BALPA wants DfT and CAA to fund drone strike research – fears of cockpit hit or engine fire
Date added: March 2, 2016
Pilots’ union British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) are calling for research into what would happen if a drone hit an airliner, after 23 near-misses around UK airports between 11th April and 4th October 2015. In one incident a drone passed within 25m (82ft) of a Boeing 777 near Heathrow. Twelve of the incidents were classed as “A” rated, the most serious rating, by the independent Airprox board, meaning there was “a serious risk of collision”. Other incidents given the most serious rating include a drone coming within 20m (66ft) of a Embraer 170 jet on its approach to London City Airport above the Houses of Parliament on 13th September. Also a Boeing 737 had a near miss with a drone shortly after take-off from Stansted. BALPA wants the DfT and the CAA to back research into the possible consequences of a collision with a passenger jet. The effect could be serious if a drone smashed into the cockpit windscreen, or if it crashed into an engine. Unlike with bird strikes, the drones carry lithium batteries – there is concern these could cause a serious engine fire. The consequences of a drone hitting a plane would depend on a number of factors such as the size and speed of the drone and the location of the collision.
Drone near-misses prompt calls for plane strike research
Pilots are calling for research into what would happen if a drone hit an airliner, after 23 near-misses around UK airports in six months last year.
Reports from the UK Airprox Board reveal the incidents happened between 11 April and 4 October 2015.
In one incident a drone passed within 25m (82ft) of a Boeing 777 near London Heathrow Airport.
Pilots union Balpa wants the government and safety regulator to back research into how serious a strike could be.
The incident at Heathrow was one of 12 that were given an “A” rating by the independent board, meaning there was “a serious risk of collision”. It is the most serious risk rating out of five.
Other incidents given the most serious rating include a drone coming within 20m (66ft) of a Embraer 170 jet on its approach to London City Airport above the Houses of Parliament on 13 September.
Engine failure warning
On the same day, a Boeing 737 had a near miss with a drone shortly after take-off from Stansted Airport in Essex.
Regulations set by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) prohibits unmanned aircraft from flying within 50m (164ft) of any vessel, vehicle or structure that is not in the control of the person in charge of the aircraft.
The British Airline Pilots Association (Balpa) wants the Department for Transport and the CAA to back research into the possible consequences of a collision with a passenger jet.
Former RAF and British Airways pilot Steve Landells warned that a drone hitting an airliner could result in an uncontrolled engine failure or a smashed cockpit windscreen.
Mr Landells, Balpa’s flight safety specialist, said there was a large amount of data on the effects of bird strikes on planes, but he said specific drone research was needed because “birds don’t have a big lump of lithium battery in them”.
Many pilots think it’s a matter of time before one actually strikes a plane, yet no-one has any real idea what would happen if it did.
Balpa says it is possible a drone could smash the windscreen, showering the crew with glass, or even cause an uncontrolled engine fire which could bring down the aircraft.
In 2009, an airliner lost both engines coming out of New York after it hit a flock of geese. It was only the skill of the pilot, gliding the aircraft down in an emergency landing on the Hudson River, that saved everyone’s life.
Balpa says a drone strike could be even worse, because they have powerful lithium batteries on board that could start an engine fire. It’s now asking the government and the safety regulator to help pay for tests to see just how serious a drone strike might be.
Philippa Oldham, from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said the consequences of a drone hitting an airliner would depend on a number of factors such as the size and speed of the drone and the location of the collision.
“The impact potentially could be anything from nothing to a destruction of an engine,” she said.
People who fly drones close to planes could be convicted of endangering the safety of an aircraft, which has a maximum prison sentence of five years, the CAA said.
A spokesman for the regulator urged drone users to understand that the UK has “one of the busiest areas of airspace in the world”.
A Department for Transport spokesperson said public safety was “our first priority” and it is working closely with the CAA and airline operators to “improve our understanding and knowledge this emerging technology”.
Make sure you can see your drone at all times and don’t fly higher than 400ft (122m)
Always keep your drone away from aircraft, helicopters, airports and airfields
Use your common sense and fly safely; you could be prosecuted if you don’t.
Drones fitted with cameras must not be flown:
Within 50m (164 ft) of people, vehicles, buildings or structures
Over congested areas or large gatherings such as concerts and sports events
Drone over Heathrow was ‘wingspan away’ from collision with jet
UK Airprox Board reports two more high-risk near misses involving passenger planes, one at Heathrow and the other at Manchester airport
By Gwyn Topham, Transport correspondent (Guardian)
Two more near-misses between drones and passenger planes at UK airports have been reported by aviation authorities, including one a “wingspan away” from a jet landing at Heathrow.
Pilots have called for a clampdown on drone use after a spate of incidents. Among the latest six to be investigated and verified by the UK Airprox Board, which monitors the threat of midair collisions, three were in the most serious bracket of risk, one involving a small light aircraft and two involving larger passenger planes.
The closest calls came in late September as an Airbus A319, which typically carry up to 180 passengers, landed at Heathrow, and two days later as a turboprop commuter plane, believed to be a LoganAir flight to Scotland, left Manchester airport.
The pilot at Heathrow reported a drone helicopter hovering close to his flight path, and was unable to take evasive action as the drone passed less than 30 metres away from his A319. Police were called but the operator of the drone could not be traced.
The Manchester plane had taken off and reached an altitude of 3,000ft when a pilot saw a red and white drone pass less than 15 metres above the port propeller. Although the aircraft was undamaged, investigators concluded that “separation had been reduced to the bare minimum and chance had played a major part in events”.
Pilots fear that more near-misses occur than they witness, and say the trend is extremely worrying. The Balpa union has called for a registration system for drone users and more research into the possible effects of an impact.
A Balpa spokesperson said: “Once again we see these near misses happening at altitudes where manned aircraft frequently operate and also on approach to airports where there is absolutely no reason for a drone to be. We need to catch the people that are doing this before we see a collision and loss of life.
“Due to the small size of drones it is often the case that pilots see them so late that it is impossible to take avoiding action. The responsibility is on drone operators to keep them away from commercial traffic, and crucially, away from airports.”
A Heathrow spokesperson said: “The unauthorised use of unmanned aerial vehicles in proximity to an airfield is both irresponsible and illegal. Heathrow’s top priority is the safety of our passengers and colleagues. The CAA recently published revised guidelines on the use of UAVs and we will continue to work with them and other partners to ensure that any violation of airspace rules is fully prosecuted.”
Willie Walsh, the chief executive of IAG, which as the owner of airlines including British Airways is the biggest operator at Heathrow, said drones were “one of the inherent challenges we face with developing technology, and we need to keep the situation under review”.
Last month the board revealed details of seven recent incidents involving drones, four of which were classified as high-risk.
Near miss with airliner should spur review of drones, says Labour
Labour calls for urgent review of rules after UK Airprox Board reveals plane came within 20 metres of drone above Houses of Parliament
By Rowena Mason and agencies (Guardian)
The near collision of a drone and a passenger plane over the Houses of Parliament should be a wake-up call for the government to speed up its review of unmanned aerial vehicles, Labour has said.
Richard Burden, a shadow transport minister, said the near-miss over central London and other recent cases should be a “spur to action” after delays in the government’s promised consultation on regulating drones.
“The case for greater regulation needs to be urgently examined, but there is real uncertainty over the government’s intentions,” he said. “Ministers promised a public consultation last year but it has already been delayed into 2016. This incident should be a wake-up call.”
The incident was revealed by the UK Airprox Board, which monitors near collisions in British airspace. In its latest report, it said a “silver drone with a balloon-like centre and four small rotors on each corner” was spotted by the pilot of an Embraer 170 at 2,000ft (600 metres) on 13 September 2015.
The report assessed the risk of collision as high and the pilot estimated that it was pure chance they did not hit each other.
The flight had been passing near parliament at a speed of about 184mph as it came in to land at London City airport. It was estimated by the pilot that the drone came within 20 metres of the jet, which can carry up to 76 passengers, passing down the left hand side of the aircraft.
The report also reveals that there were five other incidents involving drones between August and September last year.
Three near-misses involved passenger planes either coming in to land or flying out of large UK airports, including Manchester, Stansted and Heathrow. None of the drone operators in these cases, including the incident above central London, could be traced.
Current rules on the use of drones state that they must not be flown in any way that could endanger people or property. It is illegal for unmanned aircraft to be flown over streets, towns and cities – and they must be kept well clear of airports and airfields.
However, there have been increasing warnings from pilots and other experts that regulations need to be tightened, with better records of who owns and operates them. The government first said it would have a public dialogue on greater regulation in 2014 but the official consultation is now not taking place until later this year.
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “Drones are becoming increasingly popular and have the potential to bring significant economic benefits, but it is vital that they are operated safely, in a way that does not put members of the public and other aircraft at risk.
“The government is leading efforts with international bodies to develop a stringent regulatory framework focusing on safety. There will be a public consultation before a government strategy is published in 2016.”
The consultation is looking at a range of options including regulation, registration and licensing options and a database to increase transparency on the use of drones for the general public.