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It was bound to happen

by Steve Landells Flight Safety Specialist

On Sunday afternoon a British Airways pilot reported that an object, thought to be a drone, had collided with the aircraft as it came in to land at Heathrow. Since then I have been racing around London to various media interviews to reinforce the message BALPA has been saying for a while now: drones pose a serious potential threat to flight safety.

While I’m sure most drone operators are likely sensible and follow the guidance set out by the CAA, there will always be those who fly their drones either not understanding or not caring about the risks.

While we recognise the huge economic potential of drones and can see their use will grow in the future, safety must come first and they must be integrated into the airspace in a safe and sensible manner. In order to operate commercially, drone operators are currently required to undertake a short basic training course followed by a simple flying test. In the future drones will become larger, more complex and will be used more in mixed airspace so their operators will require more advanced and in-depth testing, checking and licencing. Because of this potential development BALPA has recently taken the decision to open our doors to offer fully qualified and licensed drone operators Associate Membership, so together we can drive up standards and bring forward the highest levels of safety across all aviation.

What is BALPA calling for?

It was only a matter of time before we had a drone strike given the huge numbers being flown around by amateurs. Much more education of drone users and enforcement of the rules is needed to ensure our skies remain safe from this threat. Compulsory registration, or some equivalent system of traceability, would also mean that those who do flout the rules are more easily identified, reprimanded and prosecuted. We would like drones to be fitted with some form of technology that makes them “visible” to Air Traffic Controllers, so if one is flown in an irresponsible manner, ATC can issue avoidance action to the manned aircraft and they know the exact location to send the police to.

We also need more information on just how big a threat they are. BALPA is working with others (including the government) on empirical testing to identify what would happen if a drone was to strike an aircraft engine, windscreen or the rotor blades of a helicopter.

Now is not the time for ‘I told you so’ but rather a stark warning that our messages on drones aren’t us being overly-cautious, or trying to ruin anyone’s fun—this technology has the potential to be extremely dangerous. On this occasion, the outcome was a ‘best case scenario’ but had this machine not bounced off the aircraft, and had instead been sucked into the engine, we could have seen catastrophic results. If something positive can come out of this incident, we hope that it is that a change in the regulations for drones, and the better enforcement of the current rules, is brought to the top of the agenda to ensure that we don’t see a ‘worst case scenario’ in the near future.

Top tips for safe drone flying

A few months ago I recorded a short video with some tips on how to enjoy your drone in a safe and sensible way