BY MICHAEL PLATT, CALGARY SUN
Flying a drone requires coordination and sharp reflexes — but what the pilot clearly doesn’t need is common sense.
That dangerous truth was proven once again on Tuesday morning, when yet another fool fingering the controls of a radio-controlled drone flew perilously close to a plane leaving the Calgary International Airport, triggering a police investigation.
“The concern is that these drones are becoming more popular and less and less expensive, and not everybody who operates them is aware of the operating rules and regulations under Transport Canada,” said Kevin Brookwell, spokesman for the Calgary Police Service.
“It can be concerning, especially when we hear about them being operated in close proximity to an aircraft, because one of those things getting ingested into an engine could have catastrophic consequences.”
It was the airport that reported a drone flying over a golf course within a mile of Calgary International’s runways.
The emergency call came after the drone flew dangerously close to a passenger plane leaving the airport, but despite an instant response by police based at the airport, the ‘copter culprit couldn’t be found.
Tracking a drone the size of a laptop is akin to a needle in haystack, and it was a similar fruitless search in July, when a drone buzzed near the police service’s own helicopter.
HAWCS “reported a large Drone at 4,200 feet over the Calgary Stampede grounds in Class C airspace,” reads the report on the incident to Transport Canada, in a rapidly-growing file of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) encounters over Canada.
So far in 2015, Transport Canada has recorded 33 UAV incidents across the country, compared to 30 in all of 2014, and two the year before.
“I would say it’s a growing concern, because drones are becoming more accessible and more affordable, so a lot more people are using them,” said Mike Adam, senior investigator with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.
Currently, drones weighing less than 35 kilograms require no permit, but operators must follow rules like staying away from airports and built-up areas.
Professional operators typically follow Transport Canada guidelines, because their livelihood is at stake — but with the number of untrained hobby pilots on the rise, drones are an increasing menace to air safety.
The problem is more dramatic in the United States, with more than 650 close calls with drones reported by pilots so far in 2015, compared to just 238 reports in all of 2014.
In Britain, the Civil Aviation Authority has threatened drone operators with prison after multiple reports of UAVs coming within mere metres of aircraft at airports, including Heathrow.
In Canada the penalty is equally harsh: “Anyone who violates controlled or restricted airspace and endangers the safety of manned aircraft could face fines of up to $25,000 and/or prison.”
Aviation authorities say the potential for disaster looms.
Chesley Sullenberger, the heroic captain who in 2009 piloted a stricken jet to safety on the Hudson River, is an outspoken critic of drones, saying a UAV could easily do what geese did to his Airbus A320.
“We’ve seen what a six-pound or an eight-pound bird can do to bring down an airplane,” Sullenberger told CBS News last month.
“Imagine what a device containing hard parts like batteries and motors can do that might weigh 25 or possibly up to 55 pounds to bring down an airplane. It’s not a matter of if it will happen. It’s a matter of when it will happen.”
Drones interfering with fire fighting aircraft is another half-witted trend.
In August, a stray drone grounded helicopters and water planes fighting a wildfire in British Columbia’s southern interior for nearly five hours, as it buzzed their flight path, and that wasn’t the first such incident.
Again, the problem is worse in the U.S., which has recorded 13 wildfires in which drones taking pictures interfered.
The solution, say those trying to curb close encounters of the drone kind, is education.
“This is a good opportunity to talk about the rules, and ask people to think a little bit before they take off,” said Brookwell.