Police are investigating a pilot’s claim that a drone hit his British Airways Airbus A320 passenger plane as it approached London’s Heathrow Airport on Sunday, reports The Guardian. If confirmed, this would be the first such incident in the UK.
The plane, which was coming from Geneva, landed safely and suffered no damage as it was cleared for its next flight. There were 132 passengers and five crew on board. No injuries have been reported.
Investigators don’t know who was flying the drone, and no arrests have been made.
Steve Landells, from the British Airline Pilots Association (Balpa), said it had been “only a matter of time before we had a drone strike.” He called for greater enforcement of existing rules.
“It is totally unacceptable to fly drones close to airports and anyone flouting the rules can face severe penalties including imprisonment,” said a UK Civil Aviation Authority spokesperson in a statement. “Anyone operating a drone must do so responsibly and observe all relevant rules and regulations. The rules for flying drones are designed to keep all airspace users safe.”
In November 2015 in Costa Rica another alleged collision involved a drone and a 1960s Cessna 172 400 meters in the air. No one was hurt. It is alleged the small plane hit the drone with its right wing strut, resulting in some chipped paint.
Close Calls Between Drones and Planes
While it’s rare for a drone to hit a plane, near-misses are nothing new. Experts reviewed 921 cases involving drones and planes between 2013 and 2015 in the United States, and more than one-third of those incidents involved drones and planes coming within 500 feet of each other.
“Our findings indicate that incidents largely occur in areas where manned air traffic density is high and where drone use is prohibited,” experts said in a statement.
In February 2016, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), a commercial airline association that helps develop policy on critical aviation issues, expressed its concerns about the “real and growing threat” consumer drones pose to commercial aviation. “The issue is real,” Tony Tyler, director-general and CEO of the IATA, told an audience at the Singapore Airshow. “We have plenty of pilot reports of drones where they were not expected, particularly at low altitudes around airports. There is no denying that there is a real and growing threat to the safety of civilian aircraft.”
How Much Damage Can Drones Inflict on Planes?
A recent study from George Mason University suggests the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is overblowing the risk small drones pose to manned aircraft. The study found that an incident in which an airplane is damaged by a drone weighing 4.5 pounds should happen once every 1.87 million years of drone flight time. An injury or fatality? About 100 times less likely than that.