Last spring’s headlines were ominous, hinting at a dangerous new era for air travel: A drone had nearly collided with a US Airways jet over Florida, with results that could have been “catastrophic.”
The reality, according to a FAA document obtained by POLITICO: The pilot said his close encounter was with a remote-controlled model plane — apparently of the type hobbyists have been flying for decades.
The FAA is still investigating the incident, which might indeed have posed a risk to the passenger jet. But the newly released record offers a reminder that not everyone agrees on what is meant by the word “drone,” a term that can encompass anything from a toy quadcopter to a military weapon — complicating the debate about whether, and how, federal authorities should regulate their use in the civilian skies.
The March 22 incident near Tallahassee, Fla., came to light in May when Jim Williams, head of the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems office, presented it as a cautionary tale during a speech at a drone business expo in San Francisco. He used that incident, and anecdotes about wayward drones injuring people on the ground, as reasons for the need for his agency to write regulations on standards for the unmanned craft.
Though drones can be small, the consequences of ingesting even something the size of a goose into an aircraft engine can be disastrous, especially during takeoff or landing. “Imagine a metal and plastic object, especially with [a] big lithium battery, going into a high-speed engine. The results could be catastrophic,” Williams said in his address, which The Associated Press quickly picked up on. Soon, the incident was leading CNN’s website for hours.
The episode was among the first well-publicized accounts of a drone almost colliding with a passenger airplane.
But according to the FAA’s preliminary near-midair collision report, which POLITICO obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the offending object may not have been a drone at all, but rather a remote-control hobbyist aircraft.
The pilot reported that as he was on approach to land in Tallahassee, around 2,300 feet above the ground, he almost struck a “remote control aircraft” … a “small model F-4 aircraft that was camouflaged.” The report described it as a “model aircraft.”
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com