FBI, FAA Investigate Alitalia Pilot’s Report of Close Call with Drone

FAA says "drone" might have been model aircraft.

Alitalia 777

Alitalia 777

Federal investigators are looking into the unmanned aircraft sighting reported by an Alitalia pilot landing at JFK on Monday afternoon, an event that has evoked larger fears of the planned widespread integration of unmanned aerial vehicles into American airspace.

The 777 was on final approach to Runway 31R around 1:15 p.m. when one of the Alitalia pilots told the tower controller he saw a black drone with four propellers that was no more than 3 feet wide. According to the FAA, the craft was flying at an altitude of 1,750 feet at the time and came within 200 feet of the airliner. The Alitalia flight, which originated in Rome, landed safely without taking evasive action.

The event triggered FBI and FAA investigators to issue an alert on Tuesday requesting assistance in identifying the craft and its operator. Officials believe the unmanned vehicle could have been a model aircraft, which are restricted from surpassing an altitude of 400 feet agl and must stay at least three miles clear of airports, according to federal regulations.

The incident has drawn a new wave of national attention to the growing concerns surrounding the incorporation of drones into American airspace, a process that is to be completed by September 2015, according to legislation enacted by Congress last year. While it is difficult to pinpoint the exact number of unmanned aerial vehicles flying today, the Los Angeles Times recently reported that the FAA has issued 1,428 unmanned aerial vehicle operating permits to domestic parties since 2007. According to some estimates, American skies could see up to 30,000 drones flying by 2020.