NEAR-MISSES between aircraft and drones have more than tripled.
Some 92 incidents were recorded in 2017, according to analysis of UK Airprox Board (UKAB) data.
This is compared with 71 during the previous 12 months and 29 in 2015.
Former RAF and British Airways pilot Steve Landells, flight safety specialist at pilots’ union Balpa, described the figures as “very worrying”.
He believes the true extent of the problem could be even more severe as pilots struggle to see drones from cockpits.
“It’s really hard to see something that small,” he said.
“There’s a possibility there are a lot more near-misses that aren’t being seen,” he said.
“This could just be the tip of the iceberg.”
Twenty-eight near-misses in the past year were classified as having the most serious risk of a collision.
These included incidents near the London airports of Heathrow, Gatwick and London City, as well as Edinburgh, Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol.
Mr Landells explained that pilots were particularly concerned about near-misses which occur when they are preparing to land.
“It’s a critical stage of the flight and you really don’t need to be distracted,” he said.
“If you see a drone flying past your cockpit it’s a real shock to the system.
“Anything that distracts you from getting the aircraft down on the ground is a safety hazard.”
A study part-funded by the Department for Transport found that a drone weighing 2kg could critically damage a plane windscreen in the event of a mid-air collision.
Available for as little as £30 and often boasting built-in cameras, sales of the gadgets have risen sharply in recent years.
Drone users must follow restrictions on flying near airports, people and built-up areas.
The Government is due to publish a draft Drone Bill in the coming months which will require users to register and sit safety awareness tests.
A Boeing 737 passenger jet was preparing to land on the flooded runway at East Midlands Airport when a drone passed just 30 metres from a wing in October 2016.
The workload in the cockpit was already high as the captain was working out the calculations for landing amid severe weather.
A collision was only “narrowly avoided”, the UK Airprox Board (UKAB) said.
An Airbus A319 pilot reported that a drone “put 130 lives at risk” after it nearly hit the aircraft in July last year.
The “very large” flying gadget passed directly over the right wing of the airliner which was approaching Gatwick, according to the incident report.
In May 2017 a Loganair pilot was forced to take evasive action after a drone came within 20 metres of his plane as he prepared to land in Edinburgh. The UK’s first reported near-miss between an aircraft and multiple drones was in November 2016.
Code restricts use of gadgets
Drone users must follow a number of restrictions when using the increasingly popular devices, which have become very popular gifts.
In November 2016, the Civil Aviation Authority launched a website to publish a revised code of conduct, called the Drone Code.
The rules say the devices must not be flown:
Above 400ft (120m);
Where you cannot see them;
Near aircraft, airports or airfields;
Within 150ft (50m) of people or property;
Over crowds and built-up areas;
Within 500ft (150m) horizontally of crowds and built-up areas.