‘Only a matter of time’: First-ever drone collision with passenger plane reported in UK

© Neil Hall
A British Airways aircraft carrying 132 passengers on board was just about to land at Heathrow airport when, according to the pilot, it collided with a drone. This could be the first-of-its-kind and fortunately nonfatal accident in the aviation history.

The two aerial vehicles reportedly came across one another over the Heathrow airport in London on Sunday, the Metropolitan police said citing the plane’s pilot. Flight BA727 was heading from Geneva, Switzerland to London with 132 passengers on board.

While dozens of near-misses involving planes and drones have occurred in the UK and across the globe, this time a collision was not spared, the police suspect. However, they are still to confirm whether a drone was to blame. No arrests have been yet made by the police.

The pilot told police that an object, which he believed was a drone, had hit the front of the airplane moments before landing. Despite the encounter, he managed to safely land the plane and avoid casualties.

Following the incident British Airways said the Airbus A320 "was fully examined by our engineers and it was cleared to operate its next flight" and promised to offer the police “every assistance with their investigation”.

The Civil Aviation Authority, which is responsible for British aviation safety, said that they are aware of the "possible incident with a drone” at Heathrow airport.

"Anyone operating a drone must do so responsibly and observe all relevant rules and regulations,” the spokesperson added saying it was “totally unacceptable to fly drones close to airports”.

Steve Landells, flight safety specialist at the British Airline Pilots Association blamed the alleged collision on amateurs who are not taking the risks seriously.

“Frankly it was only a matter of time before we had a drone strike given the huge numbers being flown around by amateurs who don’t understand the risks and the rules,” he said.

He stressed that “much more education of drone users and enforcement of the rules is needed,” in order to ensure the airspace safety.

Earlier this month the airlines’ pilots had called for an investigation to discover the consequences of a drone collision. The request came after the UK Airprox Board released a report saying 23 near-misses between drones and aircraft occurred within the period of six months last year in Britain of which 12 were given an ‘A’ rating meaning there was a “serious risk of collision.”

One such near-miss occurred in September 2015 when a drone narrowly passed the right hand side of a Boeing 777 after the aircraft had just taken off. The drone was only 25 meters away from the aircraft and was flying at the same hight, investigators said.

A few days later, another dangerous incident occurred when a drone was said to be flying only 20 feet (6 meters) above the aircraft and 25 yards (23 meters) to the plane’s left. The Airbus A319 had been about to land at Heathrow airport.

After the incident, Landells said the the collision may lead to rather serious consequences, including an engine failure.

“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.

Last month Landell also advocated that a probe be launched into the effects of drone-strikes on planes. While he said that the effects of birds coming across planes have been studied in detail, this kind of research was not enough to tell what would happen if a drone hit the plane instead, since "birds don't have a big lump of lithium battery in them”.