Close Encounter Between Airliner and “Drone” Reflects Challenges to a Fledgling Industry

        On April 28, 2015, the crew of Virgin America flight 769 reported seeing a “drone” flying in the approach path to Dallas Love Field as the airliner descended for landing. Based on media reports, at about 9:30 p.m., the crew witnessed a lighted quadcopter flying above their aircraft as they passed over the Crescent Hotel near downtown Dallas, which is approximately 3 miles from Love Field. The Dallas Police Department dispatched a helicopter in an attempt to verify the report and to locate the quadcopter. However, at this time, it does not appear that the quadcopter or its operator were found.

        With the increasing availability of high-quality “drones” (referred to by the Federal Aviation Administration as “Unmanned Aircraft Systems” or “UASs”) these types of encounters are on the rise. Such encounters are a concern for many reasons. Not only do they present an obvious safety hazard for larger aircraft, their passengers, and the public on the ground; such encounters are harmful to the UAS industry, which is only beginning to develop the full potential of this important technology. Many private organizations and governmental bodies are searching for ways to regulate UAS operations in a manner that will encourage growth of the industry without compromising safety.

        The FAA recently announced proposed regulations applicable to operation of Small UASs.1 Those regulations are meant to apply to commercial operators, and they are designed to address pilot certification, registration, and safety. The UAS flight witnessed by the Virgin-America crew might have run afoul of several of the proposed regulations because:

  1. they require operators to maintain visual-line-of-sight to the UAS (meaning that the UAS must remain within the sight of the operator, unaided by any device);
  2. they prohibit flight over persons not directly involved in the operation of the UAS;
  3. they prohibit operation at night;
  4. they require an air-traffic-control clearance for operation within Class B airspace; and
  5. they prohibit operation at an altitude higher than 500 ft. above ground level.

        As the UAS industry grows, it is important for UAS operators to use good judgment to avoid encounters with other aircraft and to avoid operating in an unsafe manner. Additional encounters like flight 769 may cause more-stringent regulations and may restrict the growth of the UAS industry. Further, although it is difficult, it is important for pilots to remain vigilant to “see and avoid” potential hazards (just like the crew of flight 769 did) and to report errant UAS operations to air traffic control when spotted.

1The proposed regulations are available at: