Drone Hit on British Airliner Adds Urgency to Calls for New Defenses

NEWS ANALYSIS: There’s no question that irresponsible drone use endangers passenger aircraft, but most of the proposed solutions to this threat miss the mark.

Drone Threats 2

I glanced out the right window of the cockpit as my aircraft climbed out of Tappahannock, Va., and in the distance, I could see the sparkle of the Chesapeake on this gloriously clear day as I headed for a landing at Manassas, Va.

The Rappahannock River slid behind me and I could feel a little turbulence as I rose above the farmland on Virginia's Northern Neck. Ahead of me, I saw the sparkling blue of the lower Potomac.

Just as I was nearing the point of land that holds the Navy's weapons research facility at Dahlgren, Va., the aircraft was staggered by what felt like a blow. I looked at my wings, and they were intact. A test of my control surfaces showed that the aircraft was responding correctly, but now I'd lost all power to the instruments. I had no radio and no navigation.

Fortunately, I could see the long scar that is Interstate 95, and I knew that I could find the airport visually. I followed the highway that leads to the airport, turned across the airport to look for traffic, and then entered the pattern and landed on the airport's longest runway because my electrically operated flaps wouldn't function.

I rolled to a long stop and then taxied to my tie-down. The verdict? Clear air turbulence had knocked out my electrical system, which might have been enough to bring down the aircraft.

Now imagine that I'd hit something even harder, such as a drone. This happened over the weekend of April 16 as a British Airways Airbus A320 airliner was on final approach to a runway at Heathrow, according to press reports. This time, the drone hit directly on the nose of the aircraft, and while there was alarm in the cockpit, the damage, if any, was minor.

But such a drone strike could have been catastrophic—just as a few geese brought down another Airbus A320 in New York, resulting in a water landing on the Hudson River. However, in that event, a brilliantly controlled landing and great luck allowed all passengers and crew to safely evacuate the floating airliner as it drifted down the Hudson.

A drone strike into an engine could have caused a similar engine failure, this time over London. Equally bad, if the drone had struck a couple of feet higher, it could have hit the windshield, incapacitating the pilots.

In response to this drone strike, there are already calls by the uninformed declaring something must be done. An NBC commentator is suggesting that "geo-fencing" be required for all drones.

It's already illegal to fly an unmanned aircraft anywhere near an airport and it's illegal to fly one without registration, and in many cases, a license. But still, the close calls and now this collision keep happening. There must be a solution, right?

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...