Possible Drone Collision with British Airways Jet UPDATE: May Have Been a Plastic Bag

April 20, 2016
A British Airways (BA) pilot reported the collision between an object, believed to be a drone, and a passenger jet as it was landing at Heathrow Airport in London on April 17.

A British Airways (BA) pilot reported the collision between an object, believed to be a drone, and a passenger jet as it was landing at Heathrow Airport in London on April 17.   

The strike was reported while the plane, carrying 132 people, was flying at approximately 1,700 ft, according to the Metropolitan Police report.   

This incident, being treated as an endangerment of an aircraft under Article 137 Air Navigation Order 2009, is being investigated by Aviation Policing in partnership with BA, Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).  

Although British Airlines engineers found no damage to the Airbus A320 upon its inspection and was cleared to operate its next flight, this incident could mark the first official case of a major airline plane colliding with a drone in the UK and is sparking conversation on safety and drone registration.

"Thankfully the aircraft landed safely but the incident highlights the very real dangers of reckless, negligent and some times malicious use of drones," said Martin Hendy, head of Metropolitan Police Service's Aviation Policing Command. "We continue to work with the Civil Aviation Authority and other partners to tackle this issue and ensure that enthusiasts who fly drones understand the dangers and the law."  

 In the UK and U.S., drones can not fly higher than 400 feet and kept away from aircraft, helicopters, airports and airfields under penalty of prosecution, according to the CAA. Small private drones do not need to be registered.  

"For years, the general public had little reason to be concerned with airspace issues," according to the government and commercial drone operating testing guide released by the North Carolina Department of Transportation. "Now, new technology is rapidly becoming more accessible to commercial and private operators. Small and sophisticated unmanned aircraft are increasingly affordable."  

Accessibility and affordability of drones by private operations is of concern to the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA). 

"Was only a matter of time given the huge numbers being flown by amateurs who don't understand the risks [and] the rules," the BALPA Twitter, @BALPApilots, tweeted Sunday.   

No trace of the drone that was thought to have hit the BA jet, or any debris, was found by police as they searched the Richmond area. 

UPDATE: British Transport Minister Robert Goodwill told the House of Lords that it is unclear whether the object was actually a drone, and may have been a plastic bag. 

"I’ve not actually landed a 747 at Heathrow, but I’ve landed the simulator, and the pilot has a lot of other things to concentrate on," Goodwill told The Washington Post. "So we’re not quite sure what they saw, so I think we should maybe not overreact too much."

With information gathered from the UK Airprox Board, the BBC complied the following list of drone-related incidents at UK airports: 

  • 17 April 2016 - A British Airways plane approaching Heathrow is believed to have hit a drone while in midair 
  • 28 November 2015 - The pilot of an A321 plane narrowly missed a drone hovering at 100ft above a runway at Gatwick Airport 
  • 30 September 2015 - A small drone helicopter passed within 30ft of the cockpit of an A319 plane while on the approach to Heathrow 
  • 22 September 2015 - A "quadcopter-type drone" missed the right-hand side of a B777 plane by about 25m while at 2,000ft after it left Heathrow Airport 
  • 13 September 2015 - A silver drone with a "balloon-like" center missed an E170 aircraft by about 20m, while the plane was approaching London City Airport over the Thames 
  • 13 September 2015 - A drone flew over the top of a B737 aircraft while at 4,000ft, missing it by about 5m, shortly after it left Stansted 
  • 27 August 2015 - A DO328 aircraft flew within 50ft of a drone while approaching Manchester Airport at 2,800ft 

In the United States between August 2015 and January 2016 alone, however, there has been close to 600 incidents of drones coming close to aircraft, according to the Federal Aviation Administration unmanned aircraft (UAS) report.