On one day alone, August 4, 2015, at one airport, New Jersey’s Newark, four different commercial airliners on approach for landing reported seeing drones near or in their flight path.
According to the FAA, pilot reports of unmanned aircraft have increased dramatically over the past year, from a total of 238 sightings in all of 2014, to more than 650 by August 9 of this year.
Among those dodging hobbyist drones are pilots of commercial airliners, fire fighters and air ambulance pilots. The safety implications of these unmanned drones – being flown by anyone with a few hundred bucks to purchase one –is very concerning for all of those involved in aviation safety. Do we need to include drone evasion in commercial pilot training? Will helicopter flight training have to include drone identification?
For now, the government is focused on trying to control the behavior of drone pilots – albeit unsuccessfully to date. While the FAA guidelines, or rules, for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are clear, they are in fact not law (the FAA can’t make laws).
- A small UAS operator must always see and avoid manned aircraft. If there is a risk of collision, the UAS operator must be the first to maneuver away.
- The operator must discontinue the flight when continuing would pose a hazard to other aircraft, people or property.
- A small UAS operator must assess weather conditions, airspace restrictions and the location of people to lessen risks if he or she loses control of the UAS.
- A small UAS may not fly over people, except those directly involved with the flight.
- Flights should be limited to 500 feet altitude and no faster than 100 mph.
Operators must stay out of airport flight paths and restricted airspace areas, and obey any FAA Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs).
The public is becoming increasingly aware of the implications of these seemingly innocuous encounters – like when western fire fighting aircraft were forced to ground activities this summer over safety concerns of the drones in their space. It appears lives literally are on the line.
Drones have been spotted at altitudes as high as 10,000 feet and at airports throughout the country including, Newark, JFK, Denver International, Fort Lauderdale, Allegheny County, Dane County, Burbank, Greenville-Spartanburg International and Dallas Love Field to name a few.
Will public pressure – hopefully before a drone-caused air tragedy occurs – lead to more regulation of drone pilots? Or will we force pilot training institutes to start including drone awareness training for their commercial pilots – the ones responsible for the safety of hundreds of air passengers?
At this point, the answers are not clear. And as drones become less expensive and more ubiquitous, this challenge will only increase.
Safety of the passengers must remain the paramount objective of commercial pilots. It appears many drone pilots are not deterred by the guidelines law, so in the name of safety, commercial and private pilot training may be a logical response.