“Drones” Hitting Airliners – A Cautionary Tale?

Unlike some Professors, Consultants, Experts and Academics, I am not a “Media Warrior.”  It seems too easy to fault mainstream media for misinformation or political bias.  After all, everyone has some agenda or cause they wish to endorse.  It also seems a difficult task for a layperson to instantly evaluate breaking news stories and weed out fact from fiction on so many differing topics.  However, news can pander to our salacious impulses, compelling us to stick around for Breaking News while wading through endless commercials.  News is a business after all, and commercials pay the bills, it is reality T.V. in it’s rawest form.  This made recent news from a pilot who stated, “a near midair collision with a drone,” all too fascinating and intriguing.


Drones, which are colloquially known as UAS’s (Unmanned Aerial/Aircraft Systems) within the aviation community, are a new and exciting technology.  The traditional “pilot and aircraft” model of aviation is being challenged within the armed forces by larger “Predator” type drones or unmanned helicopters (Sikorsky recently tested a UH-60 Blackhawk cargo helicopter for the Army’s use).  The reality is that smaller UAS’s are the real culprit when it comes to commercial inflight incursions.

Recent reports show these smaller UAS’s are being flown for, “photography, herding sheep, delivering pizza, guiding lost students around campus — these are just a few things friendly drones can do.  Company and DIY drones are on the rise, and not even Hollywood stars will be safe from them.  Soon starlets might be acting in front of drone-mounted cameras or being chased by a UAV paparazzi.”  It is fascinating what the potential of these devices hold.  However, the fear of in-flight-incursions with commercial jets is clearly tenable.


This is a Draganflyer Quadcopter, it is the perfect size for photo reconnaissance and UAS imaging. It is about the size of a dinner plate and weighs less.

CNN reported that a Federal official stated that a pilot of a commercial airliner nearly collided with a drone.  Frankly,  I could not believe that this had happened.  I feared that this might curtail the use of UAS technologies.  However, the potential for income is tremendous, “a recent study estimated the worldwide market for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) at $89 billion in 2013.”  This number will be dwarfed in the next few years while technologies and legislation improvesl, which I believe will happen.  Economics is a strong incentive especially in a hyper-capitalistic society such as ours.  But safety, like the burgeoning airline industry of the 1940’s and 1950’s, will be the big detractor.  That said, I do have several comments concerning UAS and commercial airliner incursions.  As an aviation maintenance technician for multiple airlines, with equipment ranging from 747’s to small turboprops, for over twenty years.  I have seen hundreds of bird strikes, lightning strikes, runway incursions, and all types of aircraft damage.  While safety has, is, and will continue to be my number one concern when addressing these issues.  It is important to note that these occurrences are a large part of aviation engineering and maintenance. The perception of a UAS penetrating a commercial jetliners fuselage that is properly maintained and airworthy is highly unlikely.  The size and composition of the UAS is the determining factor when assessing this reality.

Furthermore, debris (commonly known as FOD, Foreign Object Damage) being ingested into jet engines is an occurrence that is constantly being addressed by aircraft maintenance organizations and manufacturers.  The amount of damage tolerance that these high-bypass jet engines can endure is tremendous, the metallurgical strength of their large Fan Blades and Core is staggering.  Regrettably we only hear of these incidents if they come at a cost to life or damage to property.  

Engine Sunset

Modern High Bypass engines such as this CFM-56 offer large fan sections, providing almost 65% of it’s thrust. Most ingested debris goes around the more susceptible turbine sections where a “Flame Out” situation would develop. This engine is so transparent that this is a sunset shining through the super strong fan blades.

The evaluation process in the wake of these events is intense and comprehensive, however rarely does an engine “flame out” as a result of these occurrences, almost never.  Of course, the recent exception being U.S. Airways flight 1549 where an Airbus A-320 ran into a flock of large Canadian Geese taking out several inlet guide vanes (IGV) and fan vanes which “flamed out” both engines at a precariously low altitude.  However, given proper altitude, the crew may have restarted one or both of of these engines, though evidence is inconclusive.  At a nominally higher altitude the Airbus could have also safely glided to an alternate airport for emergency egress.  This is something all pilots train for incessantly and are recurrently trained for in simulators.

UAS plane-350x246 

The United States Aeronautical system works, and works well.  The statistics are staggering.  We are far more safe flying from Los Angeles to New York than we are driving to the airport.  Yet we are a driving nation, with highways, safety belts, and airbags.  We drive everywhere without giving it a thought.  I believe, given proper education, licensure, and legislation, the introduction of UAS technologies will only add to the benefits of flight to our society.  It is amazing that huge jumbo jet aircraft fly around the world on just two engines, when the public used to firmly believe that more engines meant more safety.  Our incredible safety record is a testament to the quality engineering, excellent maintenance, and well trained crews that operate our aircraft.  The marriage of these two aeronautical disciplines will move forward and will enjoy a successful and fruitful partnership in the future of commercial aviation.







About R. Eric Jones

R. Eric Jones, MS, FAA AMT, Com/Inst Pilot, AGI, is Professor of Aviation and Associate Dean in the College of Aviation, Science and Technology at Lewis University

One thought on ““Drones” Hitting Airliners – A Cautionary Tale?

  1. August 24, 2014 at 12:27 pm

    I think to really treat this subject properly we must now project into the future changing landscape when $89B has been spent on UAS that are in the air and delivering everything from packages to pizzas. It is highly unlikely that these will pose a real threat to commercial flight paths and airport operations. Our regular hobby rules preclude that today and we would have to believe that the only incursions would be exceptions – perhaps those exceptions would include the occasional terrorist attack which will happen so quickly in commercial space we’ll have no defense whatsoever – except the last minute ATC radio slip, “OH SHIT.”

    But if we project out 5-10 years and $89B later, what do the skies look like? what are the concentrations by industry? what sizes and construction materials are likely and what risks will we see not only in the commercial aircraft arena and for private aircraft, emergency aircraft, and more?

    There are likely to be thousands of UAS/drones over any major metropolitan area on any given day. We could project the regulatory environment and say they would be predominately in the under 1,000 ft space. Some would have collision-avoidance technology and some would not. Most would be courier-based and therefore lightweight materials structured to carry payloads – packages, food, etc. – incursions into the 2,000 ft space would be fairly common and too many exceptions to handle when it comes to enforcing a minimum safe altitude for UAS.

    It would seem that if we projected what the future of UAS would look like we would determine whether they would pose a significant threat to commercial flights or if private and emergency flights would be more the risk.

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