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Aviators fear the ‘Big One’


There have been multiple close calls and minor collisions between manned and unmanned aircraft, but the nightmare scenario involves a drone colliding with a commercial aircraft, resulting in catastrophic damage and loss of life.

The Federal Aviation Administration is concerned about the potential for conflicts between manned and unmanned aircraft, as pilots of manned aircraft reported 1,800 drone sightings in 2016, a sharp increase from the 1,200 reported the previous year, according to the agency.

“The potential for a collision between a manned and an unmanned aircraft absolutely poses the greatest risk in drone operation,” said James Van Meter, aviation practice leader, Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty S.E. in Atlanta. “Having an unmanned aircraft sucked into the engine of an airliner could cause millions of dollars of damage.”

Even drones operating legally several hundred feet above the ground are concerning because they can fly into areas where helicopters and agricultural aircraft typically operate, Mr. Van Meter said.

“That potential for collision at low altitude is particularly risky,” he said.

In December, the National Transportation Safety Board determined that the operator of a drone that collided with a U.S. Army helicopter in September failed to see and avoid the helicopter because he was intentionally flying the drone out of visual range and did not have adequate knowledge of regulations and safe operating practices. The drone operator was unaware of the collision until an NTSB investigator contacted him. He was also unaware of temporary flight restrictions in place at the time, was flying recreationally and did not hold an FAA remote pilot certificate.

A drone also collided with a Beechcraft King Air A100 aircraft en route to Québec City Jean Lesage International Airport in October with two pilots and six passengers on board, forcing the crew to make an emergency landing, according to a February report by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

“The pilot had no time to take evasive action,” the report stated. “The impact was unavoidable, and the drone disintegrated.”




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