I-Team: Close calls in the sky: Are drones making takeoffs more dangerous?

"By the time we saw it, we were upon it"
Posted at 4:45 AM, Jul 18, 2018

“We could have never missed it if we were on a collision course,” he said. “By the time we saw it, we were upon it.”

Paul Walter learned to fly an airplane well before he was licensed to drive a car.

Those years of experience make him a cool customer in the air -- even on a day last September when a strange object zipped past his Piper PA-39.

“My wife says -- look at that!” Walter said. “And, boom we saw a large drone. It was off our wing about 50 feet.”

Walter had a dangerously close encounter with a drone. His first instinct was to warn other pilots, because a drone around an airport could have deadly consequences.

“If it went through the windshield, that could be serious to say the least,” Walter said. “It could kill the pilot.”

That's why federal law creates a five mile bubble around airports where drones can only fly with permission.

The 7 Eyewitness News I-Team discovered dangerous drone operators break that law almost six times a day.

Records reviewed by the I-Team show just last year, pilots reported more than 2,100 unregistered drones in protected airspace.

In New York, it happened 231 times.

Five of those calls happened at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport. Even Mercy Flight helicopter pilots have reported close calls with drones.

“We need to be extremely cautious about this and don’t leave that to chance,” said Javid Bayandor, an aerospace engineer who runs the CRASH Lab at the University at Buffalo, which studies drone strikes.

On a recent afternoon, Bayandor showed the I-Team simulations of what a drone would do to a jet engine. The engine was damaged in less than a second.

“By the time you detect a drone on a radar or see it on an aircraft, it will be too late,” Bayandor said.

So what does the FAA do to fight this risk? In many cases, it simply calls local police.

NFTA Transit Police were sent to look for a drone in June of last year when a pilot reported what he thought was a drone off the end of runway 23. The object turned out to be a Chinese lantern. Spokeswoman Helen Tederous said the agency’s policy is to investigate any reports of unauthorized drones and report the incidents to the FAA, FBI and Town of Cheektowaga.

An FAA spokeswoman told the I-Team unauthorized drone operators can face more than $1,000 per violation, but from those 2,122 drone reports called in last year, only 19 resulted with the pilot tracked down and fined.

The FAA declined to sit down for an interview with the I-Team. In a statement, it said education is a key component of its drone safety plan. But it knows that is often not enough.

Just last month, the federal Government Accountability Office determined the FAA needs to do more. The watchdog agency released a study with a clear warning in the title: "FAA should improve its management of safety risks."

It cited the research of Bayandor, the UB professor, as a big reason why.

“It’s time for us to look into proper regulations,” Bayandor said. “We’re not trying to limit anyone, but try to look into proper regulations that would make sure that all of us are safe.”

For pilots like Paul Walter, drones are just the latest potential problem on their radar. But a drone flying where it shouldn't be is often too small to see until it's too late.

“We could have never missed it if we were on a collision course,” he said. “By the time we saw it, we were upon it.”


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