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Planes having close encounters with drones near Alabama’s busiest airport

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There have been five hazardous or unauthorized sightings of drones flying near the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in Birmingham, Ala., since April 2016.

That airport is the largest and busiest in Alabama.

An ABC 33/40 News iTeam review of Federal Aviation Administration records uncovered that in two of those cases, the drones passed within 200 feet of private planes.

And at nearby Shelby County Airport in Calera, a Birmingham suburb, pilot Steven Smith passed just 15 feet under a drone last September as he climbed to an altitude of 2,000 feet.

“Did that get your heart pumping?” I asked. “Oh, absolutely,” Smith told the ABC 33/40 News iTeam. “Anytime you have a near-miss with anything in the skies, it’ll get the blood flowing.”

Two of the most concerning incidents at the Birmingham Airport

Here are the two most concerning incidents at the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport:

  • February 15, 2017: A drone flew 100 feet below a Cessna C340 as the pilot’s plane approached the runway, one-and-a-half miles away from the airport. The close encounter occurred 1,200 feet in the air.
  • October 2, 2016: A drone passed 200 feet above a Cessna C172 near the airport. That close encounter occurred 5,000 feet in the air.

FAA safety guidelines

The Federal Aviation Administration’s safety guidelines call for drones to operate:

  • No higher than 400 feet
  • Well clear of manned aircraft
  • At least five miles from an airport
  • Far away from power stations, water treatment plants, government and correctional facilities, stadiums and heavily traveled roadways.

Businesses can request exemptions through the FAA.

The FAA says unauthorized drone operators can be subject to stiff fines and possible jail time.

The risks

Kevin Allred is a flight instructor with Over the Mountain Aviation at the Shelby County Airport. He often flies to and from the Birmingham Airport.

“There’s no good place to be hit by a drone,” Allred said.

He showed me all the vulnerable spots on a private plane where impact with a drone could put the pilot, passengers and people on the ground in danger.

“If it went through the prop and hit the windscreen it could incapacitate the pilot, and then, at that point, you’re more than likely going to crash.”

But what about the risks of drones colliding with commercial jets?

Javid Bayandor, Ph.D., is a professor of aerospace engineering at the University at Buffalo. He’s also the founder and director of the Crashworthiness for Aerospace Structures and Hybrids (CRASH Lab) at the school. He’s studied drone impacts on commercial planes. He says a drone could be sucked into a jet engine.

“If anything gets ingested, and you feel you have to turn off an engine, you have to definitely make an emergency landing,” Bayandor said.

Meantime, Smith said that while he missed hitting the drone during his flight two months ago, climbing in a slightly different direction could have resulted in an impact.

“Oh, I could have hit it. I easily could have hit it.”

Air Line Pilots Association, International statement

Here’s what the Air Line Pilots Association, International says about close encounters between planes and drones:

“As reports of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS or drone) sightings in shared airspace continue to increase, it is time for Congress to take action and remove any barriers preventing the FAA from fully regulating UAS, regardless of their operational purpose,” ALPA said in a statement to the ABC 33/40 News iTeam.

“Currently, the FAA lacks the ability to regulate recreational and hobby operations which has led to a higher degree of risk to manned operations than is acceptable,” the statement said.

“ALPA and other aviation stakeholders have repeatedly requested that Congress lift the limitations enacted in 2012 that prevents the FAA from applying important safety regulations to recreational users. By removing these barriers, the FAA would be able to ensure that hobbyists register their aircraft, operate them safely, obtain the proper pilot training and licensing, and require that UAS weighing over 0.55 lbs are equipped with appropriate technology needed to ensure the safety of our nation’s airspace.”

Academy of Model Aeronautics statement

The Academy of Model Aeronautics, an industry group, issued this statement:

“AMA firmly believes that all drone and model aircraft pilots should follow the appropriate safety guidelines and stay well clear of manned aircraft at all times. Safety is high priority for our organization, which is why we have a robust education program that helps our members understand where and how to fly responsibly. We’ve also worked to help those who are not AMA members understand the basic guidelines for safe operation through the Know Before You Fly campaign.”

Helpful information for drone hobbyists

Industry groups have partnered with the FAA to educate drone pilots about safety.

They’ve launched a website that has lots of helpful information. It’s called knowbeforeyoufly.org

You can also download a free app for your mobile phone called B4UFLY.

It helps you determine whether there are any restrictions, or requirements, in effect at the location where you want to fly your drone.

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