American Airlines Pilot Says He Almost Crashed Into a Drone in Mid-Air

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An American Airlines pilot told FAA officials that he nearly crashed into a drone over Florida this past March, most likely the first time a major U.S. airliner came dangerously close to an in-air drone collision. 

According to the Federal Aviation Administration's Jim Williams, who heads up the agency's unmanned-aircraft office, the pilot of US Airways Flight 4650 from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Tallahassee, Florida, spotted a "small remotely piloted aircraft" about 2,300 off the ground. "The airline pilot said that he thought the [drone] was so close to his jet that he was sure he had collided with it," Williams told the Wall Street Journal, adding that the fear in that situation is that the small jet's engine will suck in the drone — which, according to Williams, would be "catastrophic."

It's unclear who operated the drone, which was described by the pilot as "a camouflaged F-4 fixed-wing aircraft that was quite small." According to a representative from the Defense Department, who would not comment on this incident, most government drones are not in painted in camouflage. American Airlines, which own US Air, said it had no evidence of the event. 

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The Journal reports that other pilots have reported seeing drones mid-flight, though this is the first time a U.S. airliner was affected: 

In March 2013, an Alitalia aircraft approaching John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York observed a drone within 200 feet, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI on Friday said it is still investigating that incident.

Drone laws are murky and still evolving, but the use of commercial drones is basically illegal, for now. However, the commercial drone industry would be a boon for the U.S. economy — and it's unlikely that flying commercial drones will be illegal for long. The question is what regulations will come to rule over them? Near accidents like this one raise fears that FAA regulations cannot keep up with the quickly expanding industry. And, the Los Angeles Times reports that impatient drone enthusiasts are sick of waiting: 

The regulatory body, responsible for keeping U.S. airspace safe, plans to propose a formal rule for commercial drones by the end of the year. But regulations aren't likely to be finalized until 2015 at the earliest, leaving some wondering whether the FAA can catch up to an industry already half past go.

Even though the rules are important enough to be worth waiting for: 

From a regulatory standpoint, integrating these drones into the national airspace is a complicated challenge that must reconcile evolving technology with safety concerns, including how to keep the drones from crashing into manned aircraft or causing damage or injury as they land. "We really want to get it right the first time," said FAA spokesman Les Dorr.

But if people are already flying drones in commercial airspace, it's probably a good idea to get some good rules in place soon.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.