More than 300 near misses between drones and aircraft across the UK have been recorded, even before the major disruption seen at Gatwick and Heathrow this winter, it has been revealed.
This includes four near accidents in the skies above Yorkshire and Humberside, a special investigation by The JPI Media data team for The Yorkshire Post has discovered.
One of these was at Leeds Bradford Airport when a Boeing 737 was preparing to land but had a near miss with a drone over central Leeds.
The pilot estimates the craft missed them by just 1,000 ft. It was rated a major incident.
Another incident last June saw the highest reported sighting of a drone by a pilot at 15,500ft, nearly 40 times the legal maximum. It came within 100ft of an Airbus 321, which had just left Doncaster Sheffield Airport.
In the run up to Christmas drone sightings brought 36 hours of chaos to Gatwick Airport, 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.
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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.
Phil Forster, spokesman for Leeds Bradford Airport, said: “In conjunction with West Yorkshire Police the airport has a robust response and contingency plan in place to mitigate any unauthorised drone activity. Due to the sensitive nature of this subject we are unable to give exact details of the plan.
“Regarding day to day activity, we continue to have an excellent relationship with our local commercial drone operators which includes an effective booking process and operating procedures.”
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But it is the irresponsible drone operators which 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.
Analysis of UK Airprox Board reports also reveals:
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.
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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” that 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.”
“Any misuse of drones is absolutely unacceptable. We have always said that. That has been a constant message we have given to drone users: they must abide by the rules and they must abide by the Drone Code. It is very easy to abide by. It is not placing severe restrictions on them. If you do operate a drone, it should be very simple to comply with the rules.
“If you look at the drone forums, there is a huge disagreement between various elements of drone users and the aviation community about what is actually possible. So a lot of drone users would say getting a consumer-style drone up to those kinds of altitudes is impossible. Others say it isn’t. Certainly, some of the very high reports we get, it does sometimes perhaps call into question what has happened, in comparison to what we know is actually possible with a drone.
“We have an ongoing, extensive education programme for drone users that has been running for nearly three years now and have put a lot of effort into that. Commercial drone users go on a course and get education on the rules and regulations of exactly what they should do. For consumer users it is about education. We have seen a sizeable increase in public awareness of what the rules are.”