There were drone-near misses long be­fore the Christ­mas 2018 chaos

Re­ports re­veal his­tory of in­ci­dents af­fect­ing com­mer­cial Gatwick flights

West Sussex Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - Oli Poole ws.let­[email protected]­me­ 01903 282382

Drones re­port­edly posed a threat to the safety of flights in and out of Gatwick Air­port years be­fore the Christ­mas chaos which saw hun­dreds of planes grounded.

Just three years be­fore the De­cem­ber dis­rup­tion, a drone flown de­lib­er­ately over the air­port’s run­way came dan­ger­ously close to hit­ting a land­ing com­mer­cial air­liner.

The in­ci­dent was among 15 flights to and from Gatwick since 2015 which en­coun­tered a near-miss with a drone, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial re­ports.

The fig­ure was un­cov­ered as part of an in­ves­ti­ga­tion by this news­pa­per and JPI­Me­dia ti­tles na­tion­wide, which found the South East had the sec­ond­high­est num­ber of nearmisses be­tween drones and air­craft since 2010.

Anal­y­sis of UK Air­prox Board (UKAB) re­ports found 83 re­ported drone in­ci­dents across the re­gion – nine of which were in Sus­sex – be­tween Jan­uary, 2010, and Oc­to­ber, 2018.

A drone strike would pose a sig­nif­i­cant dan­ger to air­craft, of­fi­cials have warned.

Min­istry of De­fence guid­ance stated: “Whilst there is work on­go­ing within the avi­a­tion in­dus­try to fully un­der­stand the im­pli­ca­tions of a drone hit­ting an air­craft, it doesn’t take much imag­i­na­tion to un­der­stand the likely con­se­quences of 3kg of metal and plas­tic, in­clud­ing the lithi­umpoly­mer bat­tery, hit­ting a he­li­copter wind­shield or, per­haps worse, the tail ro­tor at 100mph.”

The re­gion most af­fected by near-misses was Greater Lon­don, which ex­pe­ri­enced 103 of the 312 re­ported UK in­ci­dents over the eight-year pe­riod, ac­cord­ing to UKAB re­ports. The South East was close be­hind with 83 – more than dou­ble that of any other area.

A to­tal of 15 UKAB re­ports doc­u­mented drone in­ci­dents which af­fected com­mer­cial planes to and from Gatwick, ac­cord­ing to the re­search.

Of these, seven were fly­ing over East or West Sus­sex at the time.

Among them was an in­ci­dent on Novem­ber 28, 2015, which left UKAB mem­bers ‘in­cred­u­lous’ at the il­le­gal and dan­ger­ous ac­tions of a drone pi­lot who po­lice were un­able to trace.

The cap­tain of an Air­bus A321 had spot­ted what he as­sumed was a bird hov­er­ing about 100ft above the Gatwick run­way, the UKAB stated.

It was thought the drone op­er­a­tor had been try­ing to cap­ture footage of plane land­ings when it came within 80ft of hit­ting the plane, the re­port added.

It said: “The board quickly agreed that the drone was be­ing op­er­ated in fla­grant dis­re­gard of the reg­u­la­tions and with­out thought as to the se­ri­ous con­se­quences should an ap­proach­ing air­craft ei­ther land slightly long or have to go-around at a late stage.

“Mem­bers ex­pressed their deep dis­ap­point­ment at the ac­tions of the in­di­vid­ual re­spon­si­ble for this drone’s op­er­a­tion, no doubt un­der­taken in or­der to se­cure head-on video footage of land­ing pas­sen­ger air­lin­ers; they were in­cred­u­lous at the be­hav­iour that had been demon­strated in this in­ci­dent.”

On March 20, 2016, a pas­sen­ger plane fly­ing in the vicin­ity of Shore­ham came within feet of a drone be­ing flown more than nine times higher than safety rules per­mit­ted.

The near-miss hap­pened as the Bom­bardier DHC8 was mak­ing its des­cent un­der the su­per­vi­sion of Gatwick Air­port’s air traf­fic con­trol team. As the plane was fly­ing at more than 9,000ft the pi­lot saw a drone pass down its right side, un­der the wing.

The drone passed 50 tp 100ft be­low the air­craft.

The UKAB said the in­ci­dent meant ‘safety had been much re­duced’ on the flight and rated it a Cat­e­gory B near-miss, or ‘ma­jor in­ci­dent’.

At the time, some drones fit­ted with a first-per­son view (FPV) cam­era live-feed could be flown be­tween 400ft and 1,000ft un­der cer­tain con­di­tions – a rule which has since changed.

The board said even so, the drone should not have been flown above 1,000ft and ruled that it had ‘been op­er­ated in con­tra­ven­tion of ap­pli­ca­ble reg­u­la­tions’. The drone op­er­a­tor could not be traced.

Drone dis­rup­tions made na­tional news in July, 2017, when the BBC re­ported a sight­ing lead­ing to clo­sure of the run­way and the di­ver­sion of five flights.

A UKAB re­port which matched the date said a near-miss a few nau­ti­cal miles from the air­port rep­re­sented a ‘def­i­nite risk’ of col­li­sion.

Just a week later, a ‘very large’ drone which passed over the wing of an ap­proach­ing Air­bus had put the lives of 130 pas­sen­gers at risk, the cap­tain told the UKAB.

Jonathan Ni­chol­son, of the Civil Avi­a­tion Author­ity, said: “Air travel is the safest mode of trans­port and re­mains so and ev­ery­thing we do is to make sure that hap­pens, but we also want to re­move any kind of con­flict in the air.

“We want the max­i­mum lev­els of safety, so that is why it is ab­so­lutely im­per­a­tive that drone users fol­low the (Drone) Code and drone rules.”

Aside from in­ci­dents af­fect­ing com­mer­cial Gatwick flights, the UKAB doc­u­mented two fur­ther near-misses in Sus­sex. They in­cluded a drone op­er­a­tor re­port­ing close shaves with two light air­craft while us­ing his ma­chine to take panoramic pic­tures near Hast­ings. He had ques­tioned the safety mea­sures built into his drone when he was un­able to safely lower it, the UKAB re­ported.

Although it tran­spired it was pos­si­ble to abort the pic­ture-tak­ing mode, board mem­bers ‘won­dered whether this in­for­ma­tion should be given more promi­nence in the man­ual’.

Gatwick de­clined to com­ment on the find­ings of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Laws around the use of drones are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly tight as the de­vices gain in pop­u­lar­ity.

Any­one fly­ing a small drone must al­ways have di­rect visual con­tact with it. Break­ing this law could lead to a fine of £2,500. On July 30, 2018, it also be­came against the law to fly a drone above 400ft (120m) or within 1km of an air­port or air­field bound­ary.

Any­one caught do­ing so could a face a £2,500 fine. From Novem­ber 30, 2019, all own­ers of drones weigh­ing 250g or more will also have to reg­is­ter with the Civil Avi­a­tion Author­ity and drone pi­lots will have to take an on­line safety test.

Gen­eral avi­a­tion rules also ap­ply to drone pi­lots.

Fly­ing drones in a man­ner which is likely to en­dan­ger an air­craft could re­sult in a five-year prison sen­tence, as could caus­ing an air­craft to en­dan­ger peo­ple or prop­erty.

In­ten­tion­ally us­ing a drone to com­mit an act of vi­o­lence at an in­ter­na­tional air­port could mean life im­pris­on­ment.

Ear­lier this month, the Gov­ern­ment an­nounced it would be bring­ing for­ward a draft Drones Bill which could give the po­lice pow­ers to is­sue on-thes­pot fines for mi­nor drone of­fences.

The Gov­ern­ment also plans to widen the re­stric­tions around air­ports to about 5km.

The ac­tions of these drone users was not only ir­re­spon­si­ble, but il­le­gal

BARONESS SUGG Avi­a­tion Min­is­ter on Gatwick’s drone chaos


UKAir­prox­Board(UKAB)re­ports doc­u­ment­nu­mer­ous­re­ported­drone­sight­ings.

How re­ported near-misses be­tween drones and air­craft have in­creased

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