In recent months, pilots have reported having beams from laser pointers wash through their cockpits on three occasions, while experiencing uncomfortably close encounters with drones three additional times as they approached or flew through restricted airspace at Charleston’s Yeager Airport, officials said.
On Thursday, Yeager administrators, aircraft and drone pilots, Federal Aviation Administration personnel, Charleston police, Transportation Security Administration officers and FBI agents got together to discuss how to more efficiently share information on drone and laser incidents. The goal is to improve safety and increase the odds of identifying the unmanned aircraft operators responsible for near collisions.
“Drone ownership is steadily increasing, and the more drones that are sold, the more sightings we’ll have at Yeager and other airports, increasing the likelihood of a collision,” said Russ Kennedy, operations chief at the Charleston airport.
While thousands of drone/manned aircraft near misses are recorded annually in the U.S., collisions have been rare, though an incident producing injury or death is virtually inevitable as more drones take to the sky, according to Kennedy.
“Airplanes have been brought down by birds, so there’s no reason to think that a drone as big as a crow getting sucked into a jet engine or crashing through a windshield won’t cause a crash some day,” Kennedy said.
Among confirmed drone/manned-aircraft collisions on record are a September 2017 incident in which a civilian drone struck an Army UH-60 Black Hawk as it passed over Staten Island, New York, and a hot air balloon occupied by three people struck by a drone the following August near Driggs, Idaho. Both aircraft were able to continue flying after the drone strikes.
A total of 2,122 drone sightings by pilots were reported last year in the U.S. But spotting drones that encroach on aircraft operating areas and identifying those responsible are two different things.
Drone pilots can launch and retrieve their unmanned aircraft from virtually anywhere. Pilots who encounter the drones can’t stick around to see where they return to. By the time earthbound drone spotters can arrive at the location believed to be the retrieval site, the drone and its pilot may be long gone.
Of last year’s 2,122 close encounters with drones reported by pilots, only 12 were successfully tracked down.
Two of the recent drone sightings by aircraft in Yeager’s airspace took place near runway segments nearest Capital High and Barlow Drive. The third took place off the runway end nearest downtown Charleston, where a drone came “dangerously close” to striking a HealthNet helicopter en route to a Charleston Area Medical Center helipad.
The laser incidents included the unexpected and unwelcome illumination of a commercial aircraft cockpit, apparently beamed from a laser aimed from a location in Dunbar or South Charleston, or one of the two bridges connecting the cities. Another laser lit up the cockpit of an air cargo plane approaching Charleston from Beckley.
Locating laser wielders is more difficult than identifying drone pilots, Kennedy said, since laser devices are typically small enough to be tucked into a pocket and out of the sight of potential witnesses or police.
“When a beam from a pinpoint laser hits the windshield of an airplane, the glass it passes through makes it refract and expand, illuminating the entire cockpit,” Kennedy said. “It can cause pilots to completely lose their night vision for periods of time. Some lasers are strong enough to cause permanent eye damage.”
A drone exclusion zone has been established for Yeager Airport, making it illegal to operate drones in an area that extends one mile beyond each end of the runway and a half-mile in each direction from the runway’s centerline.
While several law enforcement officers attending the meeting said they suspected the vast majority of drone flight path and airspace incursions are done unintentionally by recreational drone pilots, serious consequences are possible for those who intentionally violate drone flight laws.
It is a federal offense to direct laser lights at, or fly drones near, or in the flight paths, of aircraft, with fines and jail terms of up to five years possible.