Air New Zealand is calling for tougher penalties for the misuse of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, after one of its flights was involved in a near miss while approaching Auckland Airport for landing.
Flight NZ92 from Tokyo Haneda, operated by Boeing 777-200ER ZK-OKF, was about five metres from a drone during its descent into Auckland on Sunday afternoon.
Air New Zealand said in a statement on Tuesday the drone “potentially put the safety of 278 passengers and crew at risk”.
“NZ92 was just metres away from a serious incident on Sunday,” Air New Zealand chief operations and integrity standards officer Captain David Morgan said.
“The pilots spotted the drone at a point in the descent where it was not possible to take evasive action.
“It passed so close to the incoming aircraft that they were concerned it may have been ingested into the engine.”
Thankfully for all concerned, an inspection of the aircraft showed no contact with the engine.
Aviation Week journalist Adrian Schofield said on Twitter the Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand was looking into the incident.
Re. drone near-miss for 777 at AKL airport on Sunday – Airways NZ says no clearance for drone operation in controlled airspace was requested that day. Incident reported to CAA, which is still gathering info
— Adrian Schofield (@AvWeekScho) March 27, 2018
Air New Zealand said the Sunday afternoon incident was the second time the airline had encountered a drone near Auckland airport.
The previous occurrence was on March 6 when one of its pilots reported a drone within controlled airspace, resulting in flight operations at Auckland being stopped for 30 minutes.
Captain Morgan called for greater education, tighter regulation regarding the use of drones, as well as stronger penalties for irresponsible operator breaking the law.
“It’s clear the time has now come for tougher deterrents for reckless drone use around airports to safeguard travellers, including imposing prison terms in the case of life-threating incidents,” Captain Morgan said.
Those using drones in violation of New Zealand’s civil aviation rules currently face a fine of up to NZ$5,000.
Air traffic manager Airways New Zealand said in a statement its airshare.co.nz website, which allows drone operators to request flight clearances from air traffic control and receive information on where they can fly safely, currently logged 600 drone flights a week, compared with 30 a week when the site was established four years ago.
There are some 7,000 registered users on the website.
“Over the past year we have received reports of at least one drone per week operating illegally in controlled airspace,” Airways New Zealand chief executive Graeme Sumner said.
“Air traffic control technology is currently unable to detect small objects such as drones so we rely on drone operators to follow the rules and register with us before they fly to ensure all aircraft are integrated safely into our airspace.”
“Drone detection technology is still in its infancy globally but Airways has been actively looking for solutions and we plan to begin trialling a new system within the next three months.”
The growing number of recreational users of drones has become an area of focus for regulators around the world.
In September 2017, a remotely-piloted aircraft collided with a US Army UH-60M Black Hawk while it was flying at 500ft over a residential neighbourhood on Staten Island, New York.
Closer to home, a Singapore Airlines Airbus A350-900 conducting a flypast over Perth came within 300ft of drone in April 2017.
A 2017 report from the Australian Transport Safety Authority (ATSB) noted the number of accidents and incidents involving remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs), commonly known as drones, was on the rise, with 12 accidents, four serious incidents and four incidents involving RPAs recorded in 2015.
“This is a significant increase compared to any other year in the previous 10 years and reflects the increasing prevalence of these aircraft,” the ATSB report said. The figures do not include incidents where pilots of conventional aircraft have reported encountering an unidentified RPA/model aircraft.
The ATSB report said the number of occurrences involving RPAs had increased from 14 occurrences in the eight-year period between 2006 and 2013 to 37 over the two years covering 2014 and 2015.
The report said most of the incidents involving RPAs involved collision with terrain, often caused by mechanical/electrical failure or radio interference.
Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) introduced new rules for recreational users of remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS), or drones in October 2017.
Under the rules, recreational users are prohibited from flying these aircraft, commonly known as drones, within 5.5km of any controlled aerodrome, which covers all capital city airports and some at regional centres.
Drones are also prohibited to be flown within 5.5km at non-controlled aerodromes or helicopter landing sites when it is clear aircraft are operating there.
Further, drones must be kept below 400ft and not get any closer than 30m from people not involved the operation of the drone. Also, recreational users can only fly one drone at a time, CASA said.
More information can be found on the CASA’s new drone website.