Updated: It Was a Matter of Time: Drone Strikes Plane at Heathrow Airport in London

Updated: It Was a Matter of Time: Drone Strikes Plane at Heathrow Airport in London

When will people learn? It's usually the minority that ruin the fun for the masses, and it looks like we have that situation across the pond at Heathrow Airport in London, England. An incident has been reported to police this afternoon at 12:50 pm about a drone colliding with a plane. This would be one of, if not the first reports of a drone actually striking an aircraft. 

A British Airways pilot has reported that his aircraft collided with a drone while approaching Heathrow Airport in the nation's capitol. The report was made to police officials today from a British Airways flight from Geneva. Although the flight did land safely, it has been determined that a drone likely struck the front of the aircraft.

No arrests have been made, but of course, the matter will be further investigated.

British Airways has issued a statement:

Our aircraft landed safely, was fully examined by our engineers, and it was cleared to operate its next flight. 

Safety and security are always our first priority, and we will give the police every assistance with their investigation.

This news came after a recent situation in Los Angeles, when a drone nearly collided with the largest passenger plane in the world.

Drone laws from the CAA (United Kingdom) are similar to the United States' FAA laws; Small Unmanned Aircraft Article 166 #3 states as follows:

The person in charge of a small unmanned aircraft must maintain direct, unaided visual contact with the aircraft sufficient to monitor its flight path in relation to other aircraft, persons, vehicles, vessels, and structures for the purpose of avoiding collisions. 

  • Make sure you can see your drone at all times, and don't fly higher than 400 feet.
  • Always keep your drone away from aircraft, helicopters, airports, and airfields. 

Update: According to reports, transport minister Robert Goodwill has not confirmed whether or not it was a actually a drone in the reported collision, see update here.

[via Sky News]

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52 Comments

Stephen Kampff's picture

If only Mythbusters were still around, to see how badly a drone could damage a plane!

After watching this video I highly doubt a small drone could do any damage to a plane.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_jfXX7qppbc

Jarrett Hunt's picture

That video show them shooting stuff at the blades which blows the debris right out the back through the bypass air. If it were to be shot into the compressor then that would be a different story.

Michael Kormos's picture

A plane went down in NYC after a birdstrike shortly after a takeoff from LGA. Captain ended-up ditching it in the Hudson River. You might have heard about it.

Sorry, I usually don't get vocal like this, but you're an idiot.

Michael Rapp's picture

To my understanding, jet engines are currently built to withstand 1 (that's one) bird impact.
"Withstand" meaning suffering heavilly but continue functioning. Several impact may very well result in engine failure.
What happens when a flock of birds encounter an airplane, may be watched in Cpt. Sullenberger's heroic ditch into the Hudson River due to double (!) engine failure.
But food for thought, you know how much maintainance and repair costs? Even without failure? A fair guess would be both our yearly income combined.

Anonymous's picture

after watching this video i doubt you are serius
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=851y6F79Qtk

Anonymous's picture

Birds have taken down big jumbo jets. An ingested drone could do major damage

Are you referring to US Airways Flight 1549? That plane was not a Jumbo but an A320. It was a single isle passenger jet. It flew into a flock of geese which typically weigh 8-12lbs each. The pilot described it as his windshield view was filled by large dark brown birds. Both engines were taken out in that case.

What other "big jumbo" jets were taken out by birds?

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

We cannot control birds, but we can control drones. Drones add unnecessary risk. If they won't be controlled now, in few years plane will go through cloud of drones before it will land.
In all of that I see new job position. Drone spotter on every airport.

Stephen Kampff's picture

I believe a DJI Drone won't let you fly near an airport until you register a credit card/address with DJI. Makes for great accountability!

Oliver Kmia's picture

That's corect, the DJI consumer level drone (Phantom, Inspire) have something called geofencing based on GPS location. It's been mandatory early 2015 after the white house drone incident.
With the geofence system, the drone refuses to take off in the vicinity of an airport. Heathrow being the largest airport in UK, such a drone can't be flown around this airport (or above 1500 feet). Take a look on DJI's no fly zone map http://www.dji.com/fly-safe/category-mc?www=v1
That's being said, many old models (Phantom 2) and DIY drones do not have that type of system.

Michael Kormos's picture

That's a great preventative measure. Good for DJI.

Michael Rapp's picture

"Takes a lickin' but keeps on tickin'".
But a major overhaul would be in order, some rotor blades would need replacing. At $10K apiece. Give or take a little.

Jarrett Hunt's picture

As a jet engine mechanic in the Air Force for the past 8 years I can say yes a drone can and will damage a engine. The engines on airliners have a small opening for the compressor. Most of the time you can't see it by looking head on at the engine do to the angle of the blades. If something is sucked in there then the engine is more than likely doomed.

wouldn't a bird be more likely to fly into it than a drone?

Jarrett Hunt's picture

Both are possible. I've seen a moose get sucked halfway in on takeoff at our base. A bird would be more likely since there are more of them. The real damage comes from getting sucked in the core of the engine.

In this case it's said that the "drone" hit the front of the plane. Did they find the drone? Possible not. Could it have been a bird? Yes. Then you have to ask, where are the guts of the bird if it smacked into the plane.

I certainly don't want drones hitting planes but I was under the impression that planes hit birds all the time and are usually fine. It's usually flocks of giant birds that do real damage to large planes. It doesn't seem like a DJI phantom would do too much damage but a larger drone certainly could.

Michael Kormos's picture

Most of drone's weight is made-up of lithium ion polymer batteries which are quite explosive. It's as likely to get sucked into an engine as anything.

Lithium Polymer (Li-Po) batteries will burn when they delaminate and are exposed to air. They don't _explode_.

Michael Kormos's picture

Listen, idiot. If a Tesla can catch fire because its battery was punctured from road debris, a drone battery can certainly do the same. Stop arguing for the sake of arguing, and I'll stop calling you an idiot.

Read the post again. I said they will burn. Yes, LiPo batteries will catch fire. Flammable (small word: burn) is not the same as "quite explosive" (small word: boom). In other words, the fuel that goes into the jet's combustion chamber is also flammable and keeps the plane in the air without the engine going boom. Get it?

While we're at it, the batteries are Lithium Polymer. There are Lithium Ion batteries which are not typically used in UAS/Drones. You seem to be mixing and combing the two up.

Oliver Kmia's picture

An A-320 hits a drone but is cleared for its next flight ? So far the facts are very vague (no damage ? no remains of the drone ? found a drone pilot ?). I think the use of conditional such as "may have struck a plane" in your headline would have been more appropriate to say the least. Looks click-bait now... Let's wait a little bit to get more information.

Oliver Kmia's picture

You're absolutely right but so far all the media have very little information to share on this event. Everybody write the same article based on a brief official statement. I just found the tittle of this article very bold considering that the conclusions are yet to be determined.

Simon Patterson's picture

I had the same thought, Oliver KMIA. The only "fact" provided in this story is that a pilot believes a drone hit his plane. People have been mistaken in the past, even pilots. So we don't even know if a drone was flying anywhere near the plane.

I take your point Pete Miller that it would probably be very difficult to find the debris, or even certainty about the cause of any damage. I wonder what the cameras around the plane spotted? If the pilot thought he could see an object that looked like it might be a drone, maybe the object was recorded on camera?

And that's not to take away from anyone's point that drones should stay away from airports. Whether drones are likely to cause planes to crash or "just" damage them is moot for mine - drones and airports should not mix.

you "deniers" are scary. Whether this particular episode was a drone hit or bird is not even relevant. People are flying these things recklessly without regard for potential consequences and eventually a collision will occur (if this wasn't one). The fact that many of you are trying to minimize the possible dangers (without any engineering knowledge) or saying it was just, "probably a bird" makes me think that you are probably the same morons flying these in dangerous ways. You of all people should be out there demanding people be flying these machines intelligently. I doubt any of you deniers would volunteer your family members to board a plane and then ram a "small" drone into it. I really expect more critical thinking skills from the fstoppers crew but continue to be disappointed.

Oliver Kmia's picture

"Deniers" "Morons" "without any engineering" "expect more critical thinking". Here are the big words already. No one is trying to denies or minimize anything here but just calling for more reserve until the facts are fully established one way or the other. But please, enlighten us if you have first hand information or extra technical knowledge to share on this specific case. Try without insults, it goes a long way for credibility.

Sorry that you missed my point. It is insignificant as to whether this incident was a drone strike or not and whether you or I have any "extra technical knowledge about this case". It is not about this case There have been several documented cases of drones near airports and airplanes and it is only a matter of time before something horrible happens. Last evening there were some comments about turtles and video's that seemed to imply this is not a big deal. I am most concerned, however, about Lee's comment that seems to be dismissive of the story and risk to such behavior. Maybe it is misguided but I hold him to a higher standard. He is a professional photographer and has an opportunity to really inform the photographic community about the responsibility that goes with owning a drone. I felt his comment stating, "wouldn't a bird be more likely..." minimized the situation. I had hoped after his 2014 article which he later pulled the video from he would take a more proactive stance. Drones may be light weight and slow speed but if you combine that with a 100mph plus airplane or even 30mph plus motorcycle you have a serious potential problem. You are correct about my use of the term morons. I should have said moronic actions (which we all do). I stand by the rest.

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