REVEALED: ‘Serious’ near-misses between drones and aircraft which proved a danger in the Hampshire skies

THERE were more than 300 near-misses between drones and aircraft across the UK - and several in the Hampshire skies - even before the major disruption seen at Gatwick and Heathrow this winter, it can be revealed.

Friday, 25th January 2019, 2:23 pm
Updated Thursday, 7th February 2019, 7:08 pm
Composite picture of drone and aircraft Picture: Shutterstock

This included 12 near-accidents in Hampshire and five in West Sussex between January 2010 and October 2018.

Specifically, there have been a number of ‘serious’ and ‘major’ incidents in and around Southampton and north Hampshire within the last three and a half years that could have caused loss of life.

Drone sightings brought 36 hours of chaos to Gatwick Airport in the run-up to Christmas. Runways were closed and 1,000 flights affected in what police described as a ‘deliberate act’ of disruption. Heathrow was also forced to ground flights after drone sightings in early January.

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Composite picture of drone and aircraft Picture: Shutterstock

But pilots had begun to report narrowly missing drones in the sky from 2010 onwards, analysis of hundreds of official reports shows The research has been carried out by the central investigations team of JPIMedia, which owns The News

One of the most potentially destructive of the incidents over West Sussex took place in November 2015 when a drone was flown deliberately over the centre of Gatwick’s runway – nearly hitting a commercial airliner coming in to land.

The chilling near-accident happened more than three years before the devices caused a major shutdown at the airport this winter. A safety board said it had been left ‘incredulous’ at the illegal and dangerous actions of the drone pilot, who police could not trace.

The captain of the Airbus A321 had spotted what he assumed was a bird hovering about 100ft above the runway’s centre line but when he was just about to land, realised it was a drone with a dark-coloured frame. The plane came within 80ft of hitting the craft.

Since the shutdowns, the government has faced criticism that the events were foreseeable and more should have been done to prevent them.

But the Department for Transport has said there are already laws against such malicious acts.

Aviation minister, Baroness Sugg, said: ‘The actions of these drone users were not only irresponsible, but illegal. The law could not be clearer that this is a criminal offence and anyone endangering others in this way faces imprisonment.

‘Airports have measures in place to counter this threat. The government is also increasing police powers to clamp down on drone misuse, and extending no-fly zones around airports to ensure our skies are safe.’

Two-thirds of the near-collisions seen in the UK so far involved commercial passenger flights, with drones frequently being flown above regulatory height limits or within restricted airport zones.

Irresponsible drone operators are rarely tracked down, the UK Airprox (Aircraft Proximity) Board documents show.

On July 30, 2018, it became illegal for any drone to fly above 400ft. Despite this, more than 20 near-misses above this height have been reported since the law took effect, demonstrating the difficulty in bringing irresponsible drone users to justice.

Analysis of UK Airprox Board reports also revealed:

Nearly three-quarters of near-misses between drones and aircraft happened in controlled airspace, such as around airports The highest reported sighting of a drone by a pilot was at 15,500ft, nearly 40 times the legal maximum. It came within 100ft of an Airbus 321 which had left from Doncaster Sheffield Airport on June 3, 2018 July is the most common month for near-misses and Sunday the most common day, perhaps a reflection of the number of hobbyists flying drones on warm summer weekends

The UK Airprox Board is funded by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and the UK Military Aviation Authority. Jonathan Nicholson, of the CAA, said there was ‘no debate’ about the fact air travel remained the safest mode of transport but the authority wanted to remove any risk of conflict in the air.

He said: ‘There are some very clear reports from pilots where often drones have been flown well above 400ft. That is totally unacceptable and should not happen. We are very clear, the rules are very clear and people should know the rules.’

Drones have grown rapidly in popularity in recent years and can now be bought for less than £20 on the high street. But they can also pose serious hazards to aircraft. A strike by a drone could break an aircraft’s windscreen or cause serious damage if sucked into jet engines, propellers or helicopter rotor blades, government officials have warned.

There have not yet been any collisions between drones and aircraft in the UK, although at least seven such incidents have been logged worldwide.

 

Incidents 

On July 18, 2018 there was a serious incident above Hindhead.  A commercial pilot was at 4000ft when they saw a drone pass down the left side, in extremely close proximity. The drone was red; they reported it to ATC who advised that there had been numerous reports of drones in that area. 

On  May 31, 2017 a drone operator reported that he was flying his drone at Beaulieu aerodrome (with the radio control flying club) when a red and white helicopter passed overhead the airfield at low level. His drone was hovering at 26m above the ground when he became aware of the helicopter travelling directly towards him at speed and only two to three times the height of his aircraft, and well below 500ft. Upon spotting the helicopter he descended his drone as fast as possible (4m/s). Shortly afterwards the helicopter banked hard to the starboard, but still came almost overhead and within 200-300m of the drone. However it was decided there had been no risk of collision, although safety had been reduced.

* Popham, near Basingstoke in north Hampshire, had a significant incident on June 27 and July 12 last year.

* Southampton had a major incident on February 13, 2017.  The pilot said that at about 1,000ft he noticed an object with a light flying towards him. It was slightly above and to the right of his position heading south. He at first believed it may have been a Chinese lantern however, as it got closer he realised that it was jellyfish-shaped and was more likely to be a drone as the wind meant it could not have been a lantern heading in that direction. The pilot though that the drine had come within a100ft of the aircraft. 

 

* Southampton Airport had a serious incident on July 26, 2015 – the same day as a significant incident was reported in Southampton.At the airport  the pilot reported that he flew past a drone. The drone had 4 blades with silver or white arms and a black body, was approximately 1m in length. It was dead level with his aircraft and was about two wing lengths to his right. He reported that he would not have had time to take avoiding action.

* A drone and a commercial aircraft had a near miss at 4pm on August 23, 2017 - it was classed as a major incident  The pilot reported that he saw a drone pass down the right-hand-side of the aircraft at between 50ft and 100ft above them and 150-200ft laterally, although he said it was difficult to judge the exact proximity due to the speed of the event - but there was no time to take evasive action. There was a clear silhouette of the drone against the grey sky, it was a small square shaped quadcopter, with either six or eight arms. The height of the drone implied that it must have been a larger more powerful drone than average, and the pilot said that it raised concerns about the consequences of one hitting the engines, or even the wing

 

 

What air traffic control says:

A NATS spokesperson said: ‘Flying any kind of drone near an airport or in controlled airspace without the proper permissions is dangerous and unacceptable. People using drones should apply common sense when deciding where to fly and need to remember that the same legal obligations apply to them as well as any other pilot.

‘NATS continues to work closely with manned and unmanned aviation industries, the government and the regulator to create an environment that ensures the safety of all airspace users while supporting the growing use of drones.’

 

What Southampton Airport says:

'For operational security reasons we do not discuss security measures in place at Southampton Airport.

'We would reassure all passengers and members of our local community that we work in close partnership with government experts and our local police colleagues to ensure our security processes and measures are appropriate and proportional in line with current threat assessments.

'Members of the public, especially those living and working around the airport, have a key role in helping us keep the airport safe, by being our eyes and ears.  If you see anything unusual, trust your instincts and report it to police immediately by calling police on 101. Together, we’ve got it covered.'