Spy in the Sky: A close encounter

FBI: Drone was within 200 feet of plane

wtopstaff | November 14, 2014 6:02 pm

Download audio

Editor’s note: Some drones are bigger than a jet, weaponized and used in strategic military operations. Others are smaller than a basketball, sent airborne for basic surveillance or weekend recreation.

The label “unmanned aerial vehicles,” or UAVs, is almost a catch-all term covering a wide range of devices that vary greatly in their capabilities and purposes. Yet the use of drones generally sparks intense debate, questions about security versus privacy and even fear.

In the WTOP series “Spy in the Sky,” we examine the types of drones used by the U.S. military and fears about targeted killings, both at home and abroad.

Part 2: A close encounter

J.J. Green, wtop.com

WASHINGTON – An incident near John F. Kennedy Airport in New York was so unusual that the air traffic controller had to make sure he heard the pilot of an inbound Alitalia flight correctly.

“What’d you see?” asked the controller.

“We saw a drone, a drone aircraft,” responded the pilot of Alitalia flight number 608.

The March 5 transmission, which was recorded by LiveATC.net, revealed a momentary scramble to determine the origin and coordinates of the drone.

The FBI, which launched an investigation, says in a statement: “The Alitalia flight was roughly three miles from runway 31R when the incident occurred at an altitude of approximately 1,750 feet.”

The drone came within 200 feet of the Boeing 777, which has a capacity of 300 people, as it was preparing to land.

Federal Aviation Administration rules state that recreational remote-controlled aircraft may not be flown higher than 400 feet above the surface of the earth. When flying aircraft within 3 miles of an airport, the operator also must notify the airport.

The drone was described as a “small, quad-rotor” aircraft, black in color and no more than 3 feet wide, with four propellers. Aviation experts say these types of aircraft usually range from 2 to 50 pounds in weight.

“Somebody was someplace they had no business being,” says Doug Davis, director of Global Unmanned Aircraft Systems Strategic Initiatives at New Mexico State University.

Davis says there is a serious risk of small drones getting sucked into the engines of passenger aircraft when the machines get too close.

“When ingested by an airliner’s engines, it could stall the engine out,” he says. “It could cause bad things to happen.”

Davis suggests the JFK incident could cause the unmanned aircraft industry to stall in its fledgling stage as well.

“The liabilities are extreme, the risks are extreme and the unmanned aircraft industry, which has enormous potential, doesn’t want to get shut down before it even begins to see what it could possibly do,” he says.

Follow @JJGreenWTOP and @WTOP on Twitter.

Advertiser Content