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Drone Almost Hit Airliner Over Florida in March, FAA Says

An unmanned aircraft almost struck a US Airways plane over Florida in March, a pilot told the Federal Aviation Administration, highlighting safety concerns as U.S. regulators develop rules for civilian drone use.

The Bombardier Inc. CRJ2 regional jet was about 5 miles from Tallahassee Regional Airport at an altitude of 2,300 feet (701 meters) when it passed by what appeared to be a remote-controlled aircraft, the FAA said in a statement yesterday.

American Airlines Group Inc., which includes US Airways, is aware of media reports about the incident and is investigating, Casey Norton, a spokesman, said in an e-mail.

There have been at at least six other incidents since September 2011 in which pilots have reported close calls with what they believed were small unmanned aircraft, according to NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System, which logs safety issues. The FAA doesn’t allow drone flights, other than by hobbyists, unless it has granted a special permit.

The drone in March came so close to the airliner that the pilot “was sure he had collided with it,” said James Williams, chief of the FAA’s unmanned aircraft office, said in a speech May 8 at the Small Unmanned Systems Business Exposition in San Francisco. “Thankfully inspection to the airliner after landing found no damage, but this may not always be the case.”

The pilot said it appeared the drone was a high-end model built to look like a fighter jet and powered with a small turbine engine, according to the FAA. Such model planes are capable of reaching higher altitudes than drone copters and may cost thousands of dollars.

Hudson Miracle

The FAA investigated the Tallahassee incident and couldn’t locate the unmanned aircraft or the pilot, according to the statement.

The FAA has said it plans to propose rules by the end of the year governing civilian drones weighing less than 55 pounds (25 kilograms), which have grown in popularity as prices fall and the aircraft become more widely available.

An industry committee assisting the FAA on the rule has proposed these small drones be kept away from airports and populated areas and limited to no higher than 400 feet.

Williams, whose speech was posted to, compared the Florida incident to the Jan. 15, 2009, water landing in the Hudson River of a US Airways Group Inc. aircraft that struck a flock of geese. No one died in the accident known as the “Miracle on the Hudson.”

“Imagine a metal and plastic object, especially that big lithium battery, going into a high-speed turbine engine,” he said. “The results could be catastrophic.”

FBI Investigation

Williams also cited drone accidents, including a small helicopter that struck a woman participating in a triathlon in Australia this year.

The March incident highlights the need for the FAA to move slowly as it develops rules to ensure the safety of unmanned flight, he said. The current rules for pilots and air-traffic controllers preventing mid-air collisions become more difficult when the person flying the plane is on the ground, he said.

The FAA and law enforcement have investigated other cases in which drones got too close to traditional aircraft.

Pilots on an Alitalia SpA Boeing Co. 777 nearing New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport reported a drone helicopter came within about 200 feet on March 4, 2013. The Federal Bureau of Investigation opened an investigation.

An unidentified airline flight into LaGuardia Airport in New York flew about 500 feet (152 meters) above a small black drone in July 2013, according to an Aviation Safety Reporting System report. The plane’s mid-air collision warning system didn’t alert them to the danger, the pilot reported. The other five incidents reported to NASA involved private aircraft.

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