With the increased, unregulated, drone activity we are coming up to the point that is not about “how”, is about “when” an accident will happen.
This year, there was a near-miss with an unidentified drone when it came close to hit an Airbus 320 at Heathrow airport, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has confirmed.
The Airbus A320 pilot reported seeing a helicopter-style drone at 700 feet AGL during its approach to the runway at 1416 GMT on 22 July.
The CAA has not disclosed the airline or how close the drone came to the aircraft.
The CAA has given the incident an “A” rating, meaning a “serious risk of collision”.
Investigators were unable to identify the drone, which did not appear on air traffic control radar and disappeared after the encounter.
In another incident, on May, the pilot of an ATR 72 reported seeing a helicopter drone only 80 feet away as he approached Southend airport at a height of 1,500 feet.
These incidents have prompted a warning from the British Airline Pilots’ Association (Balpa) that the rapid increase in the number of drones operated by amateur enthusiasts now poses “a real risk” to commercial aircraft.
The association’s general secretary, Jim McAuslan said; “The risk of a 10 kilogram object hitting a plane is a real one that pilots are very concerned about”.
“A small drone could be a risky distraction for a pilot coming into land and cause serious damage if they hit one.”
Sales of drones have increased rapidly, with UK sales running at a rate of between 1,000 and 2,000 every month.
They are expected to be very popular as Christmas presents.
They cost as little as £35 for a smaller model – more advanced drones capable of carrying a high definition camera and travelling at 45 miles per hour cost almost £3,000.
Only a very small minority of people operating drones have attended training courses in how to fly them.
A spokesman for the CAA said it had to depend on people using their common sense when they operated drones.
He said the current level of risk should be “kept in perspective” but warned that breaking laws governing the use of drones could potentially threaten commercial aircraft.
“People using unmanned aircraft need to think, use common sense and take responsibility for them”, he said.
“There are rules which have the force of law and have to be followed.”
Drones may not be flown higher than 400 feet or further than 500 metres from the operator, and they must not go within 50 metres of people, vehicles or buildings.
There are exclusion zones around airports and the approaches to them for drones weighing more than seven kilograms.
Mr McAuslan said there was an urgent need for rules to be tightened before much larger unmanned cargo planes – potentially the size of a Boeing 737 – took to the skies.