Before Christmas, air traffic at London’s Gatwick airport was brought to a standstill for 36 hours after witnesses reported the presence of a drone nearby. In early January, departures at London Heathrow were briefly halted after a drone sighting. This week, flights in and out of New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International were disrupted after two drone sightings were reported by airline crews at 3,500ft.
Drones are everywhere, it would seem.
In the case of the most recent sighting in New Jersey, 3,500ft is a long, long way above the legal altitude limit. And while it’s certainly possible to fly that high… at 4.45pm on a freezing Tuesday afternoon as the sun is going down? It seems unlikely to say the least.
Then you’ve got to factor in three more things about the reported sightings.
First, both flights were moving at close to 250mph. Assuming the drone was relatively stationary, that leaves just a split second for the crew to see, let alone identify any object outside. Second, the vast majority of drones are small – not much larger than a football.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, it’s worth bearing in mind that aircraft crew are no more trained or qualified to spot drones in the sky than you or I. Their reports can (and have previously been found to) be mistaken and they, more than most, are predisposed to assume drones are involved whenever suspicion arises.
Instead, a more logical conclusion is that they saw something else or nothing at all. Just as we’ve seen in many previous cases, drones have become to go-to UFO for when something in the skies can’t be explained.
Think that’s too bold a conclusion? Here are five examples of drones being presumed guilty only for those theories to be debunked at a later date…
The Time It Was Actually A Bat
In South Australia, July 2017, the pilot of a SOCATA TB-10 Tobago aircraft reported that he’d collided with an object during his final approach to Parafield Airport. The encounter was widely reported as a drone strike, in part thanks to the pilot’s own report that there were no bird remains on the wing after landing. It must have been a drone, right?
As we have seen on countless occasions “probably” or “possibly” morphed into “deadly drone strike” and the headlines travelled fast. However, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau decided to swab the area around the damage on the wing of the plane for DNA testing. The tests confirmed that the previously unidentified flying object was actually a gray-headed flying fox – the largest bat in Australia. Whoops.
You can read more about that here: Who’s Batty Now? Drone Strike De-bunked
The Time It Was A Plastic Bag
In April 2016 London’s Met Police reported that a drone had collided with a plane coming into land at Heathrow airport.
A few days later, once the damage had effectively been done to the reputation of the drone industry and its pilots, the UK’s transport minister Robert Goodwill admitted to The Telegraph that the collision may actually have been with a plastic bag.
To call it a head-in-hands moment would be an understatement…
“The reported drone strike on Sunday has not been confirmed it was actually a drone. It was the local police force that tweeted that they had a report of a drone striking an aircraft,” said Goodwill. “And indeed the early reports of a dent in the front of the plane were not confirmed — there was no actual damage to the plane and there’s indeed some speculation that it may have even been a plastic bag or something.”
If you want your daily dose of infuriation, you can read more about that here: Reported Drone Collision Might Have Been a Plastic Bag; Now They Tell Us & The UK’s Drone Panic: Crazy Headlines and Plastic Bags
The Time It Was A Random Structural Failure
In January 2017, an LAM (Linhas Aereas de Mocambique) Boeing 737-700 flying from Maputo to Tete in Mozambique was on approach to Tete’s runway at 4,000 feet when the crew heard a loud bang. Suspecting a bird strike, they continued the approach and made a safe landing.
The conclusions of a post-flight examination revealed a drone had impacted the right-hand side of the radome. The airline then publicly confirmed what happened and said an ‘external body’ was responsible and a drone used by nearby mining companies was concluded to be the culprit.
However, a few days later – again, after headlines of a confirmed drone strike had been circulated – Mozambique’s Civil Aviation Authority reported that they concluded the radome most probably failed as result of a structural failure caused by air flow pressure. Foreign object damage was ruled out.
You can read more about that here: Mozambique Incident Did NOT Involve a Drone
The Time It Almost Certainly Wasn’t A Drone
Back in November 2016, a Canadian airliner 9,000ft above Lake Ontario with 54 passengers on board went into a nosedive. The pilots went into the manoeuvre to avoid a mid-air collision with an unidentified object directly in front. Two flight attendants suffered minor injuries and a UAV was said to be responsible by several reputable media outlets.
Despite a Porter Airlines spokesman reporting that the pilots’ initial assessment was that the UFO was a balloon, Canadian Transportation Safety Board (TSB) spokeswoman Genevieve Corbin told reporters it was “most likely a drone.”
The incident occurred at 9,000ft, 12 miles from shore over Lake Ontario, making a drone sighting remote, if not impossible. It was most likely a bird or runaway birthday balloon.
You can read more about that incident here: The Drone Catastrophe That Wasn’t
The Time We Don’t Really Know What Happened (But a drone was blamed anyway)
In December 2018 an Aeroméxico flight from Guadalajara was on approach to Tijuana-Rodriguez Airport when crew on board heard a loud bang. It looks like a situation similar to what occurred in Mozambique. Images from local media outlets showed serious damage to the nose of the 737-800.
— Milenio.com (@Milenio) December 13, 2018
Immediately after the incident, a collision with a drone was widely reported to be the reason for the damage. However, reporting on the incident once further investigations had taken place, Aviation Safety Network said:
“Aeroméxico flight AM770 sustained damage to the nose radome while the aircraft was approaching Tijuana-Rodriguez Airport, Mexico.
Photos of the aircraft show a large dent and tears on the right-hand side of the nose radome along with partial delamination.
Despite rumours that the aircraft could have been hit by a drone, there is no confirmation or evidence yet that a drone strike actually took place. Cases are known of nose cone structural failures without any collision, such as to a LAM B737 in Mozambique in 2017.
This incident was initially and erroneously blamed on a drone strike.”
We still can’t say for sure what happened, but there is no evidence that a drone was involved.
You can read more about that here: Did a Drone or a Bird Hit This Mexican 737 Commercial Airline?
One Time It Was Actually A Drone
The only confirmed incident of a drone colliding with a manned aircraft in the US occurred on September 21st 2017. A recreational drone pilot was flying beyond line of sight in an area where federal authorities had temporarily banned drone flights as a security measure during a gathering of the UN General Assembly.
If anyone in Staten Island is missing their drone, the United States Army has found it. Please contact the FAA to claim…
A Black Hawk military helicopter flying low over Staten Island collided with the drone, which was knocked into the rotor and partly lodged into the aircraft. Fortunately, the Black Hawk pilot was able to land the helicopter safely at New Jersey’s Linden Airport.
“A motor and arm from a small drone, identified as a DJI Phantom 4, were recovered from the helicopter,” the NTSB said. “…In the following days investigators were able to identify and subsequently interview the drone operator.”