First Take: What really happened with the Florida “near-miss” drone accident

The Federal Aviation Administration this week spoke at a conference of a drone that nearly collided with a US Airways airplane in Tallahassee, Fla.

“He (the US Airways pilot) reported what appeared to be a small, remotely piloted aircraft at approximately 2,300 feet in the air,” the FAA’s Jim Williams said during the Small Unmanned Systems Business Exposition in San Francisco.

The incident reportedly happened March 22 near Tallahassee Regional Airport.

The news is swiftly making its rounds on major news outlets including the Wall Street Journal and USA Today. It’s even the top trending story on Facebook.


A CNN anchor called it “a near nightmare.” The FAA’s UAS head Jim Williams referred to this type of accident as “perilous.”

But where’s the rest of the story? The data to back it up? The facts? Or just something that Williams said.

Anytime there is a near miss, which could include a collision with another airplane or that vehicle flying too close to ground obstacles, both the pilot and air traffic controller traditionally files a voluntary near miss report through the Aviation Safety Reporting System database, which has been managed by NASA since 1988.

“It’s one of the best safety databases in the entire world in terms of accuracy of data and reporting,” pilot Davis Hunt said.

The thing is, this drone collision report is nowhere to be found in the ASRS database, something drone lawyer Brendan Schulman noted on his Twitter account.

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Pilots voluntarily report to avoid adverse consequences for inadvertent safety violations, providing themselves with a certain degree of immunity from enforcement. The database is comprehensive, and Schulman said he would expect an airline pilot to file a report in the event of a near-miss.

“It feels like a manufactured story to me, Hunt said. “If there are no facts to support it, then where are they getting these statements from? In every other incident in US aviation, there’s always the ability to fall back to ASRS to find these reports and there’s absolutely nothing there.”

Many media reports are viewing a collision with a drone (which weigh on average 2 pounds, though there is no evidence as to what type of drone this was) as catastrophic, comparing it to the 2009 collision of a US Airways flight that collided with a flock of birds, which got sucked into the engines.

“If it hit anywhere in the fuselage, the plane would do a precautionary landing,” Hunt said. “Even if the engine were to fail, you wouldn’t have a catastrophic failure.”

If a plane loses one engine in flight, pilots can fly the airline to the nearest airport and land it safely, he said.

“In that case, you had a flock of geese and it just so happened that one bird went into one side and another bird went into another side,” he said.

Unless you were dealing with a strike of UAVs, the probability of UAVs getting into both engines is essentially zero.

“There’s just something that smells fishy about this story,” Hunt said. “I just don’t buy it.”

0 thoughts on “First Take: What really happened with the Florida “near-miss” drone accident”

  1. Interesting article. Thanks for posting. However, as a working aviation safety professional of almost thirty years’ experience I’d like to make some observations that run counter to most of the other comments to date.

    First, I don’t disagree with the proposition that an ASRS report should be filed for every event of this type. However, (1) ASRS reports aren’t mandatory; (2) virtually no one who isn’t associated with aviation on a fairly intimate basis has ever heard of ASRS in the first place; (3) controllers have their own ASRS form but very little incentive to fill it out, especially since the FAA created the ATSAP (Air Traffic Safety Action Program) process a few years back; and (4) the airline pilots may or may not submit a report into ASRS — especially if they were in no way at fault — but they almost certainly submitted an internal company report and/or an Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP) report. (FYI, I used to sit on the ASRS Federal Advisory Committee, but I am not and never have been an FAA employee.)

    The characterization of ASRS as “the best” is not accurate. As anyone in that program will tell you, its voluntary nature renders it by no means complete, and the very fact that submission of an ASRS report frequently is made following a screw-up in order to try to protect oneself from enforcement action means it can be more than a tad self-serving in its content. The ASRS staff considers an event where they get more than one side’s account — say, the airline crew, the controller and the operator of the model aircraft — to be the gold standard, and one which is hardly ever encountered. In any event, the absence of an ASRS report is hardly proof that something deserving of such a report didn’t happen.

    The “average weight” statistic cited in the article as a bald fact needs a little sourcing for me to buy into it. What’s more, I’d ask anyone who says a solid chunk of manufactured components constituting the bulk of that weight (engine and power source) isn’t a threat to sit down behind a certificated light aircraft windshield and allow it to be fired at them at 80 mph. I’d then ask them to stand next to an operating jet engine while the same thing was fired into the inlet. Birds squish — hardware doesn’t.

    I think the modeling community and entrepreneurs looking into branching out into unmanned aviation need to be extremely careful about automatically dismissing bad news stories they don’t like. There’s YouTube video readily available showing GoPro-eye views of landing aircraft at airports; there have been pilot reports of somebody flying some kind of RC aircraft adjacent to final at JFK International. There are stupid, arrogant people out there doing dumb things, and to say they aren’t is to deny the evidence that’s available on a regular basis. The community isn’t policing itself, and at the same time the FAA-bashing has gotten completely out of control.

    The lack of useful safety data, and the lack of respect many people flying RC aircraft of all stripes have for existing users of and processes supporting the safety of the aviation system, are the two biggest hazards current flyers face. The latter also is likely to be what’s going to kill the burgeoning industry AND the hobby, or at least drive onerous restrictions on both of them. These days, it’s cheap and easy to buy things that can be easily misused and, since their pilots aren’t accountable to anyone in particular, they’re going out and doing stuff that will tar all users with the same brush.

    RC hobbyists need to demand accountability and responsibility from their brethren. They need to stop flying models where they could hurt people, intrude on their privacy, or just hang out where they don’t belong (30th floor balcony, anyone?). They need to stop tolerating the behavior of those giving their activity a bad name.

    Most of all, they need to acknowledge that there are aircraft with real, live human beings in them who can be put at risk by irresponsible RC operations. That car crash that would make great video to sell to the TV station? What about the medevac helicopter coming in to try to help the victims? That wildfire that looks cool? What about the fire-fighting aircraft, both sprayers and spotters?

    If (when) a model aircraft causes an accident, I don’t expect its pilot to step forward and admit involvement — they’ll go home, hide the Futaba and hope nobody tracks them down. Anonymity and shadowy behavior is where the “hysteria” is coming from, and that’s why the only thing that can be done about the bad image events is to turn on those creating them instead of on the regulators trying to help everybody play nicely together.

  2. I almost hit a drone DIRECTLY over an airport in El Monte, CA last night. I was piloting a helicopter. The danger is very real. Most people don’t even know where their local airport is! How do you expect them to avoid it? I’m not going to lose my life because of your hobby.

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