Revealed - the near misses with drones over Bedfordshire’s skies

Do you know the law around Drone usage?
Do you know the law around Drone usage?

The skies above Bedfordshire have seen at least four close calls between drones and planes in the past three years.

And one of those incidents was with an Airbus - which can carry up to 150 passengers - over Studham, an investigation into drone use has found.

GATWICK DRONE INCIDENT  - TWO DRONES SPOTTED IN GATWOCKS AIRSPACE, AIRPORT STILL CLOSED 00.46 HRS - 02.23 PASSENGERS GETTING SHIPPED OUT TO HOTELS NOW SUS-181220-123851001

GATWICK DRONE INCIDENT - TWO DRONES SPOTTED IN GATWOCKS AIRSPACE, AIRPORT STILL CLOSED 00.46 HRS - 02.23 PASSENGERS GETTING SHIPPED OUT TO HOTELS NOW SUS-181220-123851001

The investigation follows on from incidents at Gatwick and Heathrow airports in the past two months.

The airports were closed after the drones were spotted.

Luton based Easyjet last week reported it lost £15million in the Gatwick shutdown which went on for several days.

There were more than 300 near-misses between drones and aircraft across the UK even before the major disruption at Gatwick and Heathrow, it can be revealed.

Drone sightings brought 36 hours of chaos to Gatwick Airport in the run-up to Christmas, with runways closed and 1,000 flights affected in what police described as a “deliberate act” of disruption.

Heathrow was also forced to ground flights after drone sightings in early January.

But pilots had begun to report narrowly missing drones in the sky from 2010 onwards, analysis of hundreds of official reports shows.

Since the shutdowns, the Government has faced criticism that the events were foreseeable and more should have been done to prevent them.

But the Department for Transport has said there are already laws against such malicious acts.

Aviation Minister, Baroness Sugg, said: “The actions of these drone users were not only irresponsible, but illegal. The law could not be clearer that this is a criminal offence and anyone endangering others in this way faces imprisonment.

“Airports have measures in place to counter this threat.

“The Government is also increasing police powers to clamp down on drone misuse, and extending no-fly zones around airports to ensure our skies are safe.”

Two-thirds of the near-collisions seen in the UK so far involved commercial passenger flights, with drones frequently being flown above regulatory height limits or within restricted airport zones.

Irresponsible drone operators are rarely tracked down, the UK Airprox (Aircraft Proximity) Board documents show.

The board, which examines near-misses, noted in one report that “the short battery life of drones means that, with a typical flying time of approximately 15 minutes, it is difficult for the police to respond and catch drone operators flouting the regulations”.

On July 30, 2018, it became illegal for any drone to fly above 400ft.

Despite this, more than 20 near-misses above this height have been reported since the law took effect, demonstrating the difficulty in bringing irresponsible drone users to justice.

There is precedent for drones being deliberately flown near aircraft, the reports show. In 2015, an unknown person hovered a drone over the centre line of Gatwick’s runway, apparently to obtain camera footage. The drone nearly collided with a passenger plane coming in to land, but the operator was never caught by police.

The same year, a paraglider in Derbyshire reported his concerns after a drone deliberately followed him in flight. The UK Airprox Board said the “paraglider pilot had been placed in great peril by the reckless actions” of the drone pilot, who had been committing a criminal offence but could not be traced.

Analysis of UK Airprox Board reports also reveals:

>Nearly three-quarters of near-misses between drones and aircraft happened in controlled airspace, such as around airports

>The highest reported sighting of a drone by a pilot was at 15,500ft, nearly 40 times the legal maximum. It came within 100ft of an Airbus 321 which had left from Doncaster Sheffield Airport on June 3, 2018

>While many near-misses happen around the busy airspace of London and the South East, reports have now been logged in every region of the UK

>July is the most common month for near-misses and Sunday the most common day, perhaps a reflection of the number of hobbyists flying drones on warm summer weekends

The UK Airprox Board is funded by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and the UK Military Aviation Authority.

Jonathan Nicholson, of the CAA, said there was “no debate” about the fact air travel remained the safest mode of transport but the authority wanted to remove any risk of conflict in the air.

He said: “There are some very clear reports from pilots where often drones have been flown well above 400ft. That is totally unacceptable and should not happen.

“We are very clear, the rules are very clear and people should know the rules.”

Drones have grown rapidly in popularity in recent years and can now be bought for less than £20 on the high street.

But they can also pose serious hazards to aircraft.

A strike by a drone could break an aircraft’s windscreen or cause serious damage if sucked into jet engines, propellers or helicopter rotor blades, Government officials have warned.

There have not yet been any collisions between drones and aircraft in the UK, although at least seven such incidents have been logged worldwide.

>At the time of the Gatwick attack, a spokesman for Luton Airport said: “London Luton Airport has a number of security measures in place, including increased vigilance and additional police patrols”.

Four reports of near misses with drones have been reported by aircraft above Bedfordshire’s skies.

>On March 3, 2016 a civil club aircraft reported an incident above Chicksands.

The Grumman AA1 pilot told the investigating board that an object was seen to pass beneath the left wing of the aircraft. It was spotted too late to manoeuvre and came within 30ft of the aircraft. He assessed the risk of collision as ‘High’. The drone operator could not be traced.

The Board agreed the drone had been flown into conflict with the AA1. and a collision had only been narrowly avoided and chance had played a major part. They determined the risk to be Category A.

>A drone and Puma helicopter on a training sortie only narrowly avoided collision near Maulden on April 10, 2017.

The incident was reported by the operator who was flying a drone at approximately 350ft and hovering above the flying field. He heard a loud helicopter noise, so he started to descend and asked his spotter if he could see the helicopter. He estimates the time frame from hearing the Helicopter to it being overhead was less than 10 seconds and it was travelling at a very fast speed.

Assessing the risk of collision as high, the Board was heartened that the drone operator submitted the original Airprox report.

>On January 1, 2018 a civil glider ASK21 was above Dunstable when a drone was encountered at 550ftjust prior to the final turn for approach. The drone was 20-50m in front of the nose of the glider and a few metres below. It was grey in colour and therefore difficult to see in the overcast weather against a backdrop of Dunstable town. The drone was being flown such that it was endangering other aircraft. Risk high.

>On May 6, 2018 an A320 airbus, which can carry 150 passengers was at very high risk of being hit by a drone over Studham. The captain reported he had insufficient time to manoeuvre out of the way but he also assessed that it would not hit aircraft.

Findings: The drone was endangering other aircraft at that location and altitude. The Board agreed the drone was flown into conflict with the A320.