British Airways jet may have been hit by drone

Tom Metcalf
Bloomberg News

A British Airways jetliner may have been hit by a drone Sunday as it approached London’s Heathrow airport, highlighting growing concern about the potential hazard posed by unmanned aircraft.

Flight 727’s pilot reported at about 12:50 p.m. local time that he believed a drone had struck the front of his Airbus A320 from Geneva, according to a statement from the London Metropolitan Police. There were no injuries among the 132 passengers and five crew members, and police are investigating.

“Our aircraft landed safely, was fully examined by our engineers and it was cleared to operate its next flight,” British Airways, a unit of IAG SA, said in a statement. The U.K.’s Civil Aviation Authority, which called it “a possible incident with a drone,” said that “it is totally unacceptable to fly drones close to airports and anyone flouting the rules can face severe penalties including imprisonment.”

The incident underlines the growing risks errant drones pose to airlines. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration reported 1,200 incidents last year involving drones, up fivefold from 2014. No collisions were reported, though the incidents included flying too close to passenger airliners and other aircraft. The agency predicts 2.5 million drones will be sold in 2016.

“As far as I’m aware this is the first time a drone has collided with a commercial jet,” said Hans Weber, president of San Diego-based aviation consulting firm Tecop International Inc. “It clearly was illegal where this drone was being flown.”

Regulators have been working for years trying to decide how to regulate drones as the number of recreational aircraft soars, according to John Robbins, assistant professor of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.

“It’s another paradigm in aviation,” Robbins said. “There’s a need to make users aware they’re not toys.”

The U.K.’s regulations stipulate users must be able to see their drone at all times, not fly it higher than 400 feet and keep away from planes, helicopters, airports and airfields. In the U.S., the FAA requires operators to stay more than five miles from airports unless they get permission from air-traffic controllers.

“There’s a real tug of war between drone users and regulators,” Weber said, citing reports of some hobbyists competing to get as close as they can to jets. “If people kept to those requirements there would be no problem.”