Several times recently, drones have buzzed Auckland airports. On Sunday, March 25, an Air New Zealand flight from Tokyo with 278 people on board encountered a drone as the airliner was coming in to land at Mangere. On Tuesday, March 6, flights were halted for half an hour after a commercial pilot reported a drone within the airport's controlled air space. And last Monday operations at Whenuapai were suspended for 30 minutes after a Defence Force helicopter had a close encounter with a drone over Browns Bay.
News reports of these incidents are probably heard and read with horror. Not only because they are near misses but because nothing seem to be being done about them. Air New Zealand calls for tougher rules for drone operators and complaints are laid with the Civil Aviation Authority but no urgency is apparent from anybody in a position to act.
This subject sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. A drone might not be capable of doing much damage to a jet engine but who wants to find out? At the very least they pose the risk of a sudden distraction for pilots at a possibly crucial phase of landing.
On March 25 the pilots of the Air New Zealand 777-200 estimated the drone was just 5m away when they spotted it at a point in their descent that was too late to take evasive action. It passed so close to the airliner they thought it could have been "ingested" by an engine. An inspection later found no sign it had entered.
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Clearly there is cause for concern. International airport operations are not shut down lightly, even for just 30 minutes. Air New Zealand's chief operations officer, Captain David Morgan, said its plane was "just metres away from a serious incident" on March 25.
The time has come, he said, for tougher penalties for those who send drones over airports, including imprisonment for reckless, life-threatening behaviour. He is right.
Under current regulations, drone operators who breach Civil Aviation Rules can be fined up to $5000. In the five years since these remote controlled hovering toys became widely available, the air traffic control organisation, Airways, has noticed an increasing number entering its airspaces. Over the past year it has received reports of at least one unauthorised drone at an airport every week.
They are too small for air traffic controlling technology to detect them. Airways relies on drone operators registering their flights with it, "to ensure all aircraft are integrated safely into our airspace". But why do they need to be there at all?
The drone that alarmed the crew of an air force helicopter over Browns Bay last Monday was 60m away, they estimated, when they saw it.
Drones can be a nuisance anywhere, but when they venture near aircraft they are a menace. Sooner or later they could cause a tragedy. It will be too late then to be wise in hindsight. Let's be wise now. Ban them from busy airspace and double the fine for operators who put so many people at risk.