Plane Hit By Drone In U.K. — Officials Now Worrying About ‘Life-Threatening’ Drone Risk

After a drone hit a British Airways flight just before landing Sunday at Heathrow airport, Scotland Yard has mobilized to track down the suspect behind the controls, and lawmakers are calling for more stringent rules over hobby drones.

Authorities believe this is the first incident of its kind, although there have been plenty of near-misses in the U.S. and U.K. As a result, aviation officials on both sides of the pond are scrambling to figure out how serious such collisions could be, a determination they admit has come a little too late given the uptick in the number of incidents.

Thankfully, after the drone hit the plane, which was carrying 132 passengers and five crew, no one was hurt, and the aircraft was cleared for its next flight, the Telegraph reported.

“Thankfully no harm came to the aircraft or its occupants this time but there will need to be a full investigation into who was responsible for this incident with a plan to prevent this happening in the future,” said Philippa Oldham, the head of transport and manufacturing at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

The flight, from Geneva, Switzerland, was coming in for a landing at Heathrow Sunday around noon when the pilot reported that something struck the plane, a Metropolitan Police spokesman explained.

“A pilot on an inbound flight into Heathrow Airport from Geneva reported to police that he believed a drone had struck the aircraft.”

After being hit, the plane landed intact and was examined by engineers and cleared. According to the Evening Standard, Scotland Yard has begun an investigation. British Airways will assist police, including the Metropolitan Police’s aviation security unit (based at Heathrow) in the investigation, BBC News added. No arrests have been made.

Sunday’s hit wasn’t entirely unexpected, given the uptick in near-misses recently.

“Frankly it was only a matter of time before we had a drone strike given the huge numbers being flown around by amateurs who don’t understand the risks and the rules,” said Steve Landells, who is from the British Airline Pilots Association

According to NBC News, there were 40 near-misses with a plane in the U.K. last year; there were only nine such incidents in 2014. Here in the U.S., pilots have reported 650 drone sightings from January to August last year; 238 were reported in 2014.

British officials argue that the rules currently in place to regulate drones need to be enforced more strictly and new regulations added to the mix. The Civil Aviation Authority prohibits the unmanned aircraft from being flown above 400 feet and are not allowed near planes, helicopters, airports, and airfields.

After the drone hit the plane, British MP David Burrowes called the incident “appalling,” and he wants people who own such “gadgets” to register them with the government, which is already required in the U.S. Such a registration system, he said, would help police in the event of incidents like Sunday’s.

“You can’t just treat drones as an innocent leisure pursuit, it’s something that does and can cause serious security risks and potentially life-threatening risks.”

As to those “life-threatening risks,” officials don’t really know how a drone hit could affect a plane.

British pilots are calling for modeling tests to answer that question; the damage caused would be affected by the drone’s “size, direction of travel, and speed,” and where it hits the plane, said Oldham. Such collisions could be benign, like Sunday’s, or destroy an engine.

Bird strikes have been studied in depth, and those are dangerous (remember “Miracle on the Hudson” in 2009?). A computer model built by Virginia Tech engineers has hinted that a drone hit of a plane could be very serious.

One thing is certain: According to Virginia Tech’s Kevin Kochersberger, this research is “late in coming.”

[Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images]