Updated: USAF looks into Air Force One near-miss with alleged drone

Air Force One

The Air Force has confirmed it’s looking into what multiple witnesses say was a near-miss Sunday night between a drone and Air Force One. The president was on board as the aircraft was approaching a touchdown outside of Washington. Several on board the specially outfitted Boeing 747-200B saw the object, which most seem to agree was a drone.

Air Force One was on the final approach for landing. That’s when several passengers on board noticed what really looked like a drone off the plane’s right side. The object sighted was yellow and black and shaped like a cross, according to a Bloomberg News report. The incident occurred shortly before the plane touched down at 5:54 p.m. local time Sunday. Along with certain support staff, journalists tend to accompany the President on Air Force One. AFP White House Correspondent Sebastian Smith was on board and tweeted about the incident just minutes after arrival:

Close call

If that was a drone — and we say this because there have been cases where others have misidentified balloons and other objects in the sky as drones — then that’s a serious problem. Flying a drone in the corridors where manned aircraft fly is very much against the law except in extraordinary circumstances. And we can think of no circumstances when a drone would be permitted to fly in the direct landing path of Air Force One.

In reporting the story, Bloomberg contacted NORAD — the North American Aerospace Defence Command — which monitors air traffic for security threats in North America. Bloomberg says it referred questions to the Secret Service, which had no comment. Bloomberg says the FAA referred the matter to the US Air Force.

Now, two days after the incident, the Air Force confirms it is investigating the incident. A statement from the unit responsible for Air Force One when it’s in the area has released a statement. It reads: “The matter is under review… The 89th Airlift Wing’s C-32A aircraft landed safely without incident.”

Other witnesses

Sebastian Smith wasn’t the only reporter to see the apparent drone. Check out this tweet:

Another reporter on Air Force One commented on the incident

Danger in the sky?

Those in the manned aviation field, with justification, are concerned about the damage that a drone could cause to an aircraft. Though the verdict is still out on what would happen if a drone hit a passenger jet, we have seen incidents where drones have caused damage to aircraft — including a military helicopter. And few would argue that drones should be allowed to fly in the same corridors as manned aircraft except with very strong protocols to ensure they won’t come into conflict with one another.

No drones here – Air Force photo

People who saw Sebastien Smith’s Tweet were stunned to hear the news, with one suggesting Air Force One should be equipped for this kind of potential issue. That’s certainly not unreasonable, given that the heavily modified aircraft contains many other countermeasures for threats in the sky. However, jamming equipment could interfere with other aircraft, which rely on constant communication for their automatic landing systems:

Drones and Presidents make news

The last time that a drone and a US President crossed paths, Barack Obama was in the White House. It was early 2015 and someone flew a Phantom directly onto the White House lawn. And that was big news.

Wrong drone, right story

No Fly Zones

The world’s largest drone manufacturer, DJI, has software built-in that, in theory, prevents its products from flying where they should not. There are ways around this, and a pilot often is given the opportunity to override the factory settings and accept personal responsibility for the flight. It’s hard to imagine that anyone would do that and then deliberately fly near Air Force One.

But we don’t know anything about the alleged drone. We don’t know a brand — only a vague description of a cross-shape and yellow and black coloring. (Of course, many owners modify their drones with various skins and even paint jobs.) So what was this drone? Was it even a drone? We weren’t there, but we tend to think if multiple witnesses said it was a drone, it probably was.

Remote ID

It’s a topic for another day, but this will undoubtedly fuel the fire for those who’d like to see a comprehensive Remote ID scheme in place for drones. This would allow those in law enforcement to remotely identify the brand and model of drone, as well as (theoretically) the identity of the pilot.

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