Drone pilots who “buzz” passenger jets as they take off and land at British airports have been warned they face jail if caught as the number of companies and unlicensed individuals making use of the relatively low cost flight technology continues to grow.
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which issued the warning on Wednesday, has recorded six serious incidents in the past year when drones came within 20ft of airliners at airports around the country including Heathrow.
In March, the pilot of a 150-seat Airbus A320 approaching Heathrow at 1,800ft spotted a black object, believed to be a drone tracking along the approach path towards the plane. It passed above by just 50ft.
Last July, at the same airport a drone buzzed the same type of jet just 700ft above the ground. The controller of the drone could not be tracked down in either case. Near misses have also been recorded at airports in Norwich, Southend and Leeds Bradford.
“Drone users must understand that when taking to the skies, they are entering one of the busiest areas of airspace in the world,” said Tim Johnson, CAA policy director. “They must be aware of the rules and regulations for flying drones that are designed to keep all air users safe.”
The warnings from the CAA come amid a growing number of privately owned drones in use in Britain for photography and recreation. There are now more than 800 companies registered to use drones, including the BBC Natural History Unit and Berkeley Homes, the housebuilder. Among the more unusual licensees areAngels Away, which offers to sprinkle a loved one’s ashes from a drone, and St Andrews University’s sea mammal research unit.
But members of the public do not have to register drones and none of those who buzzed planes in the past year have been caught. “Recklessly endangering an aircraft in flight” is a criminal offence, the CAA has warned and anyone convicted of the charge could face a custodial sentence.
The CAA has launched a “drone code” to persuade operators to avoid the danger of collisions and a “drone safety awareness day”. They want operators to always keep drones within their line of sight and at a maximum height of 400ft and never to fly near airports and aircraft.
Last September, a gyroplane pilot was flying with a student near Rochester airport in Kent when a drone flew straight towards them at about 1,000 feet above ground level. The pilot had to take evasive action but the drone got within 10ft.
“Drones are here to stay and will have important benefits for the UK in the future,” said Stephen Landells, a flight safety specialist at the pilots’ union Balpa. “Drone operators need to put safety at the forefront of their minds when flying though, and ensure there is no conflict with commercial manned traffic.”
The warnings from the CAA and pilots follow growing concern at the safety impact of drones worldwide. Firefighters in California said last week that lives were put at risk when helicopters could not douse forest fires because of hobby drone pilots flying devices above the fires.