An unmanned aircraft almost struck a US Airways plane over Florida in March, a pilot told the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), highlighting safety concerns as US regulators develop rules for civilian drone use.
The Bombardier Inc CRJ2 regional jet was about 8km from Tallahassee Regional Airport at an altitude of 701m when it passed by what appeared to be a remote-controlled aircraft, the FAA said in a statement yesterday.
American Airlines Group Inc, which includes US Airways, is aware of media reports about the incident and is investigating, spokesman Casey Norton said in an e-mail.
There have been 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 agency does not 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 on Thursday 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 remote-controlled plane was a high-end model built to look like a fighter jet and powered with a small turbine engine, the FAA said.
Such model planes are capable of reaching higher altitudes than drone copters and may cost thousands of dollars.
The agency investigated the Tallahassee incident and could not locate the model aircraft or the pilot, the statement said.
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 aircraft that struck a flock of geese.
“Imagine a metal-and-plastic object, especially that big lithium battery, going into a high-speed turbine engine,” he said. “The results could be catastrophic.”