Drone near-miss causes UK passenger plane pilot to ‘duck’

near-miss drone passenger plan

A UK air incident board issued an official ruling on a near-miss encounter between a passenger plane preparing to land and a drone that seemed so imminent the pilot reflexively ducked beneath the cockpit window to avoid shattering glass from the expected impact. Not surprisingly, that close call was rated Category A – the highest level of risk of collision.

The review was published by the UK’s Airprox Board, which looks into “air proximity” incidents between different flying craft. It’s recent near-miss ruling concerns an August 28 flight of a Boeing 737 from Faro, Portugal, as it prepared to land at Leeds-Bradford airport with 189 passengers aboard. The report says the plane – believed to have been operated by low-cost UK airline Jet2 – was at “approximately 300-500ft… (and) fully configured and ready to land” when a drone appeared from nowhere. Startled, the pilot instinctively ducked down into the controls to avoid what appeared would be an inevitable collision with the quadcopter. 

Fortunately, that impact never occurred.

How and why is anyone’s guess, because the near-miss was reportedly one of the closest between a passenger plane and a drone ever in the UK. The Airprox Board report estimates the Boeing 737 as having gotten as close as 10 feet to the UAV as it made its approach to land at a speed of about 200 mph. 

“The Captain was the pilot flying and as a result of the startle factor ducked and moved their head away from the flight deck window as they thought it was coming through the window,” the report states, adding the result of panic in the cockpit had made the plane “unstable,” and required the crew to take it back up to 4,000 feet to attempt another landing.

“(Air traffic control) vectored them for a second attempt to land which was successful,” it says. “Engineers met aircraft on the stand and it was believed that no evidence of damage to aircraft was found.”

The report characterized the near-miss description with the drone by the passenger plane’s pilot as one in which “a definite risk of collision had existed.” Its explanation for why what the captain’s reflexes clearly interpreted as inevitable impact never materialized was an example of famous British understatement.

 “Providence,” it said, “played a major part.” 

It’s possible the drone’s pilot somehow maneuvered the craft from its collision course with the passenger plane – however unlikely that seems. Still, even if so, that scarcely clears the operator for the near-miss situation: The UAV’s position clearly violated the UK’s 5 km. restricted airspace ban around all airports – and in this case flew the craft directly within the corridors of approaching planes. 

Luckily for the pilot, the Boeing’s captain didn’t get a good enough look at the quadcopter to offer any manufacturer or model identification of it, and air traffic controller got not radar fix on it or the pilot’s ground position. Meaning, unless the illicit flier tries the stunt again, he or she will skirt the maximum penalties of five years in prison and $6,707 in fines for endangering a commercial aircraft.

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