The encounter occurred at 4,000 ft. as a Southwest Airlines flight approached LAX for landing. Audio obtained by NBC News details the incident.
“Hey, there was just one of those radio-controlled helicopter things that went right over the top of us at 4,000,” the pilot tells the control tower. “Yep, little bitty one…was red in color.”
While there was no collision and the plane landed safely, the incident highlights a growing concern among many, that a largely unregulated industry poses a severe safety threat.
“Everybody’s worried that it may be something worse next time,” retired United pilot Captain Ross Aimer told CBS. “As these drones start getting bigger and more complicated and more in numbers, we are gonna have huge problems – unless we come up with a real solution.”
Ever since a drone crash landed on the White House lawn last month, issues of drone safety and regulations have reemerged. The devices are small, some with a diameter measuring mere feet. They’re also cheap, ranging anywhere between $60 to a few thousand, and can be bought online and at major retail chains without any fuss. That kind of ubiquity scares people unfamiliar with the technology, and it makes it difficult to regulate.
Sunday’s incident isn’t the only example of a recreational drone posing a safety threat to commercial airlines. Last month, a Colorado man was charged with reckless endangerment after flying a drone in the “general flight path” of the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport.
Also last month, New York Senator Chuck Schumer cited two instances of drones entering the airspace of Westchester Airport. These near-misses caused the senator to call for new federal regulations.
“The lack of clear rules about small drones, what is a commercial versus a hobby drone, and how and where they can be used, is creating a serious threat to New Yorkers’ safety,” Schumer said. “In many ways, New York airspace has become the Wild West of drones. It must stop.”
Congress mandated that the US Department of Transportation integrate small unmanned aircraft systems into the National Airspace System back in 2012, and while rules for commercial drone use are beginning to take shape, outlining laws for recreational use has proved more complicated.
Some people are offering creative solutions to the problem. A new initiative called NoFlyZone.org aims to protect property owners from having their privacy violated by drones. Users simply enter their address into the online database, and that information is shared with participating drone manufacturers. Drones then automatically avoid entering that property.
Still, the no-fly zone database is hardly full-proof. It only applies to participating manufactures, and so far, that is a small list that includes mostly unknown brand names.
Despite the fact that there are not currently well established regulations in regards to these remote-controlled drones, the Federal Aviation Administration does have a few standards it tries to enforce, and whoever piloted Sunday’s drone violated two of these. First, recreational drones are meant to stay below 400 ft., keeping them well below the flight path of any commercial jets. The other seems more obvious. Please, please, please, the FAA pleads, keep your toys away from the airport.