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?
Drone Hit on British Airliner Adds Urgency to Call for New Defenses
There probably is a solution, but issuing a set of mandates about some sort of automated restriction isn’t really the answer. For one thing, that would require everyone to buy a pre-configured drone from a store such as Walmart or Best Buy.
But one thing I learned at the Drone Dealers Expo in Orlando the week of April 11 is that many drones aren’t from big-box stores; in fact, many are custom-made. In addition, many drones use versions of Linux in their flight control systems, which means that bypassing some sort of geo-fencing system is well within the realm of possibility.
Instead, airlines may want to consider adding the ability to detect drones to their suite of sensors. This may be something fairly simple such as the ability to detect an object in front of an airplane when it’s in a critical situation, such as landing where maneuvers to avoid an object are both difficult and dangerous. Perhaps something as simple as the radar used to detect vehicles in a car’s blind spot would be sufficient.
In addition, it seems to me that a change in the federal aviation regulations needs to be considered. Currently, it’s illegal to disable any aircraft in flight, including drones. But couldn’t a change that allows a landing aircraft to disable a drone’s flight control system, causing it to stop flying, be a worthwhile safety improvement? Such an ability—combined with a drone detection system—could go a long way in helping airline safety.
I know that it may sound odd for someone who’s a pilot and a longtime advocate for unmanned aircraft, including drones, to suggest such a thing. But the fact is that all of the rules in the world aren’t keeping irresponsible operators from flying drones around airports.
The ability to disable a drone won’t affect manned aircraft, and it won’t affect drones that are operating legally. Drones that are operated in a manner that endangers the public really shouldn’t have any protection.
One thing I learned on that flight 25 years ago is that it doesn’t take a lot to endanger a civilian aircraft. In my case, I was lucky and I had plenty of time and plenty of altitude to come up with a solution. But airplanes operating near an airport have no such luxury. They are low, and they are flying slowly enough that control is difficult at times. It’s the situation where a drone impact could easily be catastrophic.
More rules won’t help. Enforcement will only work if you can find the drone operator. Telling airline pilots to look out for drones ignores the reality of what it’s like to land an airliner full of passengers. We’ve clearly reached the point where some sort of active prevention is warranted, but first, we have to change the rules we already have.