Harrowing dances with drones

New data details near misses involving San Diego air traffic

The Terminal Radar Approach Control center in Miramar
  • The Terminal Radar Approach Control center in Miramar

A passenger plane has yet to be taken down by a drone, but insiders at the San Diego–based Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control center — reportedly the busiest air-traffic facility in the world — say the risk is growing and they have the data to prove it.

This past Sunday, Federal Aviation Administration chief Michael Huerta went public on CNN regarding 25 drone near misses reported since June of this year.

“These are very high performance aircraft and they are difficult to see,” Huerta said. “This is one of the big challenges and so that’s why the rules require that people stay away from airports.”

Huerta's appearance came amid a political tug-of-war between the newly spawned commercial drone industry and air-safety advocates over regulating the robotic traffic.

Recent close calls have included a November 16 incident involving Delta Airlines flight 838, a Boeing 737 from San Diego landing at New York's Kennedy airport, which sighted "a drone or possible large balloon with anti-collision white lights while descending."

Added the report, "The Delta pilot reports that the drone came within 10 feet of his left wing."

According to a November 20 account of the incident in the New York Daily News, the pilot told controllers, “We just had something fly over us. I don’t know if it was a drone or a balloon; it just came real quick.”

“Nassau cops searched the ground, but they were unable to locate the operator.”

“‘Left unchecked, it’s an accident waiting to happen,’ said pilot Patrick Smith, author of Cockpit Confidential.

The list of national incidents was released by the government only after Freedom of Information Act requests made by the Washington Post and other media, according to a November 26 report in the Post.

“The potential for catastrophic damage is certainly there,” Fred Roggero, a retired Air Force major general previously involved in drone safety regulation who is now an industry consultant, told the paper.

"In a statement, the FAA acknowledged that it is now receiving about 25 reports a month from pilots who have spotted drones flying in restricted airspace or in close proximity to other aircraft."

At least one incident not included on the latest list was one handled this fall by the FAA's San Diego radar approach center, a sprawling complex located on Kearny Mesa Road between the I-15 and Miramar Marine Air Station that covers a wide region of air traffic.

"While on a reposition flight to [Orange County airport], we encountered what appeared to be some sort of drone at approximately 8,000 FT over LA airspace," according to a September report by an unidentified airline pilot posted by the government on its Aviation Safety Reporting System site.

"We were on an assigned heading at 8,000 FT and I noticed something [with] gray/silver color out in front of us," the pilot continued. "There was no advisory from [air traffic control] regarding traffic or any alert from the airplane stating 'traffic.’

"We couldn't tell how fast it was going as we were going 250 [knots] and it passed quickly off the right side of the airplane approximately 100-200 FT below us. It looked like some sort of round object (similar to that of a balloon, but definitely not a weather balloon).

“We weren't sure if it was hovering or what as we passed it rather quickly. We reported it to [air traffic control] and he was very appreciative regarding the report.

"About 8 minutes later as we were approaching the base leg into [Orange County] at 3,000 FT, we saw traffic on [the plane’s traffic collision avoidance system] at our altitude," the report continued. "

"The airplane then began saying 'TRAFFIC, TRAFFIC' and the target changed course and went RED. The airplane gave us [a resolution advisory] to climb and we immediately climbed to avoid whatever it was. We never saw anything."

"We landed uneventfully. Ground Control then asked us to call [San Diego] regarding the drone report to give specifics about what it looked like. He took our information and no further action was required."

Drones are yet another headache for the big San Diego air-traffic center, which last year was the subject of an audit that called out issues regarding aircraft separation distances.

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Drones are BIG business especially in San Diego County, so expect to see and/or hear very little that may in any way limit Drone use in our shared National Airspace, which is already crowded!

Unlike Pilots, Drones Have No Fear

CaptD - The City Council will have to deal with the issue eventually. There are many neighborhoods within 5 miles of Lindbergh, and especially within 3 miles of the runway ends - the FAA has height and flight restrictions on unmanned aerial vehicle operators within these areas, but that doesn't seem to stop the hobbyists from being neighborhood jerks. It's going to take a local ordinance to restrict the a-holes who buzz your patios with their noisy, nosy flying cameras and invade your privacy from 250 feet and below. Then you could call the cops and report them, or file a complaint. Expecting the FAA to stop the local a-holes from being a-holes is too much to ask. Will it be too much to ask of the City? I hope not.

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