The drone that wasn’t: British Airways flight may actually have collided with a discarded plastic bag
posted Friday, April 22, 2016 at 7:59 AM EDT
Earlier this week, we told you about the case of British Airways Flight 727, which at the time was widely reported as potentially the first case of an errant drone striking a commercial airliner in flight. The story, not surprisingly, has been greeted with widespread alarm from a public increasingly wary of the potential for danger from drones. It turns out, though, that last Sunday's regularly-scheduled flight from Geneva to London's Heathrow airport may have in fact collided with something much less threatening.
The story first broke after the flight's pilot reported a drone strike, and local police spread the story on Twitter. The story quickly snowballed from there, with reports of damage to the aircraft, and of the UK's Air Accidents Investigation Branch looking into the matter amid calls for the public to turn in any debris located in the area of the collision. But now, it seems that the entire story was wrong, with no sign of the drone that supposedly struck the flight, and no trace of damage to the British Airways Airbus A320 which was believed to have been hit.
Speaking at the House of Lords, Minister of State for Transport Robert Goodwill suggested that the object seen by the pilot may in fact have been nothing more bothersome than a discarded plastic bag, carried aloft to around 1,700 feet by the wind. That the pilot might have incorrectly identified the object really isn't very surprising. Even on descent, commercial airliners like the A320 are moving very quickly indeed, and the jet in question was reportedly traveling at around 160 knots (184 mph).
With most consumer drones being perhaps a few feet across at most, the pilot would've had at best a few seconds in which to spot, identify and react to the object. (Each second of flight would take the aircraft 270 feet closer, even were the object itself completely stationary.) And having seen it, he or she doubtless would've been preoccupied with more important things than trying to make a precise identification. Thanks to non-stop media reporting on the topic, a drone was likely just the first thing to pop into mind.
Of course, the fact that the flight wasn't imperiled and that there may not even have been a drone in the vicinity this time certainly doesn't mean it couldn't happen in the future. In the absence of good research indicating the potential for damage from a drone strike, the issue remains quite real, and gravely concerning to pilots, the public and responsible drone operators alike.
If there's a moral to this story, it is that drone operators need to redouble their efforts to ensure they are not just in compliance with the law, but also at pains to ensure they are not endangering the public at all times. This time around, we dodged a bullet, it would seem. Next time, we might not be so lucky -- and one irresponsible multicopter pilot could be all it takes for really draconian legislation to come into force, once again putting aerial photography out of reach of the common man.