Jumpseat: Are Drones a Real Threat to Airliners?

The FAA has been feeling the pressure to establish regulations regarding UAV operation. Flying

I awoke to the faded pastel orange of a rising sun. The sun’s glow was making a feeble attempt at blending into a dominant gray winter’s overcast. Only seconds into the transition from sleep to reality, my eyes began to track a pair of pinpoint amber lights. The lights moved at a rapid pace from left to right. I bolted up from bed, jumped to the floor and then moved quickly up against the glass of our sliders.

I attempted to process the scene. No distinguishing characteristics of a winged aircraft were visible, just the appearance of two separate baseball-size amber lights slicing through the air. I judged the altitude to be only 200 feet agl. I heard no sound. And in a matter of seconds, the objects disappeared from sight. Surely my vision was being deceitful.

Lasers? UFOs? The tooth fairy? All kidding aside, only one theory seemed plausible. The sighting had to originate from a sophisticated drone that was utilizing a very bright LED light. Although it was hard to determine, the pair of lights did not appear as if they were attached to each other, but almost as though it was a strange formation flight. This suggested that two drones were involved. The incredible velocity I observed was most likely due to the relatively small size of the vehicles and their proximity to the ground.

I rationalized that the source of this event originated from two separate recreational UAV operators enjoying their new hobby on a calm-wind Sunday morning. Considering that it was the beginning of the holiday shopping season, perhaps these individuals were testing out their new toys. It would seem rather unusual that the military would conduct a UAV sortie over my little area of Connecticut. Nor would it seem likely that local law enforcement had acquired such devices, let alone require their use at such an odd hour of the day.

Assuming my theory was correct, I considered the implication of encountering similar UAV aircraft while departing or arriving at terminal airspace as an airline pilot. The topic has certainly made the rounds of media coverage, especially in regard to incidents in New York airspace. The FAA reports that such incidents are increasing in frequency, citing the proliferation of such devices and heightened pilot awareness.

Within a span of a few days, three airlines reported a drone encounter on approach to JFK. A Virgin Atlantic 747 reported a sighting just after 8 p.m. The fact that the event occurred during darkness is frighteningly problematic from the standpoint that the sighting was only possible because this particular drone most likely had some type of lighting. What if the drone operator didn’t switch on the lights?

Maintaining an increased vigilance for other airplane traffic transcends all types of operations. That being said, an airline cockpit is a busy environment during the takeoff or approach phase. Onboard systems like TCAS are tremendous tools that aid in traffic awareness. Our task saturation sometimes requires us to rely on the controller and our systems for traffic advisories.

As an example, if a controller advises that a Cirrus SR22 is transiting in the vicinity of the arrival path, I am not likely to make visual contact the first priority while configuring my 777 for the approach. Besides, what’s the chance I might spot a relatively small white airplane against a white cloud background? Nighttime visual contact becomes even more difficult.

So what would be the effect of a drone collision? First, consider one of the more serious circumstances of an impact with a jet engine. Jet engines are required to be designed such that internal catastrophic damage is contained and an automatic shutdown occurs. Although many jet engine manufacturers utilize computer simulations in their engineering development, a time did exist when chickens were propelled at inlets.

But bird carcasses have different characteristics. Their pieces are less frangible. Engine ingestion consisting of metal and/or composite material from a drone may not fall within design parameters of a jet engine. Perhaps it’s time to consider drone ingestion tests?

Airlines are well aware of not only the safety hazards but also the costs of FOD (foreign object damage) within ramp areas of their terminals. Carriers place a high priority on FOD awareness training for ground personnel. Every sailor on board an aircraft carrier understands the havoc even the smallest bolt can create. The GE engines on the 777-300 that I fly are each rated for 115,000 pounds of thrust. Imagine FOD ingestion at full takeoff power.

Now consider an airliner windscreen traveling at high rates of speed colliding with a drone. The windscreen is heated, which increases the elasticity of the glass. Other than the obvious anti-icing benefit, operating with the windshield heat on for all phases of flight is a procedure designed to mitigate the damage of a bird strike. The damage from an impact with nonbird material is anybody’s best guess. The same concern applies to an impact with a wing’s leading edge.

The radome on the nose of many airliners oftentimes consists of composite material. The material allows for easier propagation of the airplane’s weather radar antenna in addition to housing other navigation antennas, such as the glideslope. Unfortunately, the radome is vulnerable to damage because of its position at the very front of the airplane and by virtue of the material itself.

So, where does this drone threat originate? I can only assume that a small group of irresponsible idiots are disregarding the risk to human life for the sake of their own thrills and amusement. With a high-quality camera attached to their devices, having the ability to vicariously view the world from the vantage point of an eagle must be far too tempting.

Most likely, the latest craze of quadcopters is the source of the reported drone sightings. Although many less-expensive models are available, the specs of a unit advertised at $3,399 lists a service ceiling of 14,700 feet. (Check out store.dji.com.) Imagine the danger if you eliminate lights, a transponder and, because of a small reflective radar size, the ability of ATC to even receive a primary target return on its scope. I shudder at the thought.

How do I train to be vigilant for such traffic other than pure luck? I can almost guarantee that, but for the small handful of crews that reported drone sightings, others were unaware.

As mentioned in the Dec. 2 Flying e-News, editor-in-chief Robert Goyer indicated that it is unfortunate that the hobbyists involved with radio-controlled airplane models are being classified in the same category. The majority of these folks adhere to very responsible safety rules established by their long-standing organizations, especially the prohibition on operating within 5 miles and 400 feet of an airport. And most of the radio-controlled devices operated are of the winged variety.

The FAA has been feeling the pressure to establish regulations regarding UAV operation. Most of the approved operations involve law enforcement, search and rescue, the military and disaster relief. At the moment, commercial UAV operation is occurring on a case-by-case basis, involving a COA (certificate of authorization).

But FAA regulations are not going to control irresponsibility. Notwithstanding criminal prosecution and nasty fines, it seems the solution for irresponsibility is to require a license in order to buy such UAV products. And to obtain the license, an approved training curriculum should be required. If the training requirement includes a background check or government ID documentation, the process may even assist in vetting out the criminals or, worse, an individual with an innovation-minded terrorist plot.

In addition, the FAA should include a registration procedure as is done for manned aircraft. Since it has been established that the FAA can regulate all things that fly, perhaps the time has come to acknowledge that the sophistication and ­increase of UAV aviation demand rules that are not only airspace stringent but pilot stringent as well.

Drone hazard aside, depending upon the time of year, the threat from a collision with a wayward Canadian goose is a higher probability for an airliner. The Hudson River miracle landing notwithstanding, a collision occurring with multiple birds is statistically even less likely.

Are UAVs a serious threat? At the moment, I don’t see an epidemic. Certainly, the threat has to be added to our risk management toolbox.

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Les Abend
Les AbendAuthor
Les Abend is a retired, 34-year veteran of American Airlines, attempting to readjust his passion for flying airplanes in the lower flight levels—without the assistance of a copilot.

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