Airline pilots are calling for tests to be carried out to discover what would happen if a passenger jet hit a drone, amid a recent spate of near misses.
The British Airline Pilots Association (Balpa) wants the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to back research into the possible consequences of such a collision.
Former RAF and British Airways pilot Steve Landells warned that a drone hitting an airliner could result in an uncontrolled engine failure or a smashed cockpit windscreen.
Some 23 near misses between aircraft and drones were investigated by the UK Airprox Board (UKAB) in just six months according to its latest reports, including 12 given an A rating – meaning there was “a serious risk of collision”.
Steve, Balpa’s flight safety specialist, said there is a large amount of data on the effects of bird strikes on planes, but he insisted that this is not a true representation of what would happen with a drone because “birds don’t have a big lump of lithium battery in them”.
He said it is “very likely” that the battery of a standard quadcopter drone entering the core of a jet engine would cause an uncontained engine failure, as happened to a BA plane which became engulfed in flames and smoke as it was taking off in Las Vegas in September.
“You end up with very high velocity bits of metal going anywhere they like. That could be through fuel tanks, through hydraulic lines and even into the cabin,” he said.
“Losing the engine is not going to cause an aircraft to crash because they are designed to fly with one engine down.
“But an uncontained engine failure is going to be different every time. That could be very serious indeed.”
Steve explained that he wants testing with drones to be carried out because it appears none has been done before. He said the initial tests could cost around £250,000.
The DfT issued a statement which read: “Public safety is our first priority and we are working very closely with the Civil Aviation Authority, industry and airline operators to improve our understanding and knowledge of this emerging technology.
“It is important to ensure that clear and proper regulations are in place and we will set out more details in a Government strategy on the use of drones later this year.”