(KPTV) - Close calls between drones and airplanes are on the rise across the United States, including here in Oregon.
It’s a day Dale Weir will never forget. A day he involuntarily made history.
“I prefer my 15 minutes of fame to be other endeavors,” said Weir.
Last year, on May 29, Weir was flying near Aurora when he said a drone suddenly struck the wing tip of his plane.
“So immediately, the first thing I did was make sure the airplane was not damaged, particularly the controls,” said Weir.
Weir landed safely.
“I would say that I was lucky,” he said.
Investigators never found the drone or person flying it.
“I might add that the drone operator was never in any danger,” added Weir.
Weir’s story is unique in that he’s the first plausible case of a drone hitting a fixed wing airplane, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
“If we had encountered this drone any place except the wing tip, for instance going through the windshield or the horizontal stabilizer, we would’ve had an entirely different outcome,” said Weir. “I might’ve been the first fatality in the U.S., rather than first strike.”
But what’s not unique, regular close calls with drones and pilots.
FAA rules don’t allow people to fly drones above 400 feet or within five miles of an airport without permission.
Yet, FAA data shows more than 2,000 pilot-drone sightings in the U.S. last year. 31 of those were in Oregon, including Weir’s incident. That’s nearly double from 2015 when there were only 18 sightings.
The FOX 12 Investigators found pilots spot drones just about everywhere, even near PDX.
“The airport police have been notified several times last year of drones sightings,” said Kama Simonds, Portland International Airport Spokesperson. “Generally, that’s by pilots who are coming into PDX and they see something and it’s rather startling.”
When Victor Villegas isn’t singing about drone safety here, he’s teaching it at Oregon State University.
“Technology has become so easy that anyone can go to the local computer store or something and you can buy online on Amazon and just get off the shelf,” Villegas said. “Plug it in, charge it, you hit a button and it’s flying, I mean practically almost flies itself, right?”
And that’s why Villegas said it’s so important for drone hobbyists to know the rules of the sky.
“Obviously, we don’t want people getting hurt,” he said. “We don’t want them crashing into an aircraft, we don’t want them going places they’re not supposed to.”
And Weir seconds Villegas’ plea with good reason.
“If you’re operating a drone or unmanned vehicle, get educated, because if you don’t, you may be putting somebody else’s life at risk,” said Weir. “At some point, somebody is going to meet a drone and they’re not going to be lucky.”
It can be difficult to find drone violators. By the time a law enforcement agency gets there, when there’s a call, the drone is often gone.
The FAA said it’s taking steps to address the problem in a statement:
The FAA is concerned about safety and security risks presented by the errant or malicious use of drone in the National Airspace System (NAS), particularly around airports. The potential for significant disruption of airport operations by unauthorized drone operations has been highlighted by incidents at Gatwick, Heathrow, Dubai, and near Newark over the last six months.
The FAA is taking three concrete steps to address these concerns.
• Remote identification rule: The FAA will be issuing a Remote Identification Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) later this year to establish requirements for remotely identifying drones in the NAS. Remote identification will enable authorities to connect a drone flying with an operator on the ground. This will allow real-time law enforcement response, and education and enforcement by both law enforcement and the FAA.
• Information package to airports on detection and counter-UAS (C-UAS): On May 7, 2019, the FAA issued a letter and package of information to help airport operators make decisions about the possible use of detection systems at airports. The information provides for them to coordinate with the FAA to ensure safety is maintained when any drone-detection systems are integrated at an airport. The information is available here: https://www.faa.gov/airports/airport_safety/media/Updated-Information-UAS-Detection-Countermeasures-Technology-Airports-20190507.pdf
o The FAA conducted evaluations of drone-detection systems at airports in 2016-2017, and airports do present a number of challenges to the performance of these systems.
o In the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act, Congress directed the FAA to do additional pilot testing of drone-detection systems at five airports. The FAA is working on plans to implement this provision.
• Working with federal security partners on the federal response to a persistent UAS disruption at a major US airport: The FAA is working with DHS, DOJ and DOD to determine how to best use current federal C-UAS authorities and capabilities to address a Gatwick-like situation at a major US airport.
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