Jetliner may have hit a drone over London's Heathrow Airport
LONDON — A British Airways flight Sunday appears to have collided with a drone on a flight bound for London’s busy Heathrow Airport in what may be the first such incident involving a major airline.
The flight from Geneva, Switzerland to Heathrow, Europe’s busiest hub, is believed to have struck a drone, the London Metropolitan Police said in a statement. The plane landed safely following the incident, which occurred around 12:50 p.m. local time.
The incident comes at a time of rising concern about drone misuse near commercial airlines.
British Airways said its engineers inspected the Airbus Group SE A320 airliner, found no damage, and cleared the plane to continue operating.
None of the 132 passengers and 5 crew on board the British Airways plane were hurt, an airline spokesman said.
Flight safety authorities have become increasingly anxious that the use of drones is becoming a hazard for aviation. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration last month said “reports of unmanned aircraft have increased dramatically since 2014.” The agency recorded more than 1,400 reports last year of drones coming close to planes.
Pilots flying into busy hubs such as New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and La Guardia have reported drone sightings near the airfields. In 2014, the FAA said a remotely controlled aircraft came so close to a 50-seat regional jet the pilot reported to air-traffic control “he was sure he had collided with it.”
Drones, which used to be principally used by the military, have become ubiquitous, with increasing numbers of commercial operators and casual users. The price for some of the smallest vehicles has fallen sharply, making them easily affordable. Some smaller drones that are capable of flying high enough to interfere with air traffic retail for as little as a few hundred dollars.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the agency was working to make drone operators use their aircraft safely, but added “we will take action against anyone who operates irresponsibly to the full extent of the law.”
The Metropolitan police said no arrests have been made and that it was continuing to investigate.
The suspected collision may not the first between an aircraft and a drone. Norwegian authorities last year said a small private airplane collided with what was suspected to have been a drone.
The U.K. Civil Aviation Authority on Sunday said “it is totally unacceptable to fly drones close to airports and anyone flouting the rules can face severe penalties including imprisonment.”
The British Air Line Pilots Association has been warning for months the risk of a collision is mounting, calling for stricter rules for drone use and the registration of such aircraft. They also want manufacturers to build into drones systems that block them from being flown in areas where they could encounter commercial air traffic.
“It was only a matter of time before we had a drone strike given the huge numbers being flown around by amateurs who don’t understand the risks and the rules,” said BALPA flight safety specialist Steve Landells, adding “much more education of drone users and enforcement of the rules is needed to ensure our skies remain safe from this threat.”
Pilot groups also want regulators to finance tests to determine the extent of damage a drone could do to a plane. One safety officials said the lithium batteries that often power drones are highly flammable and could do serious damage to an airliner if sucked into its jet engine.
British legislators last year called for the tracking of all drone flights.
U.S. regulators have allowed limited flights of small commercial drones by several thousand operators nationwide, under special exemptions from current prohibitions against such uses. But those exemptions are in effect only during the day and the operator must be able to see the drone.
Under pressure from industry and lawmakers, however, the Federal Aviation Administration in coming months plans to complete rules for widespread commercial uses of small unmanned aircraft.
At the same time, legislation making its way through Congress would set the stage for longer drone flights, eventually including some package deliveries.
U.S. regulators in the past have reported numerous close calls between airliners and drones, including a few incidents where the distance was estimated to be barely dozens of yards.
Amid the growing controversy over drone flights, many safety experts, pilot unions and industry trade associations are promoting automated safeguards that would ensure drones can’t stray into airspace reserved for airports.
Compared with the FAA’s centralized approach, the European Aviation Safety Agency, Europe’s primary safety regulator, has been more willing to cede control over the smallest drones to individual national authorities. But as European politicians give the agency more sway over drone regulations, EASA chief Patrick Ky hopes to coordinate efforts with his American and Asian counterparts. “What I would like to do is have a global standard” on built-in drone safeguards to avoid airports and other sensitive airspace, he said in an interview last year, adding the goal is to avoid “a patchwork of national legislation that is starting to create problems.”
Alexis Flynn and Andy Pasztor contributed to this article.
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