Near Miss with Drone at Heathrow

19 Dec 14 10 Comments

Last week, an Airprox Report was released regarding an incident in Heathrow airspace. An airprox is the term for a situation where the pilot or air traffic controllers believe that the distance between aircraft (taking into account relative positions and speed) are such that the safety of the aircraft involved may have been compromised.

FAQ Details | UK Airprox Board

If a pilot or controller is of the opinion that the distance between aircraft as well as their relative positions and speed was such that the safety of the aircraft involved was or may have been compromised then he or she may report an Airprox. In Airprox 016/2002 for example, the separation recorded on radar between the two aircraft was 400ft vertically and 3 miles horizontally: this is hardly a ‘near miss’ in the way people generally use these words. In the judgement of the air traffic controllers who reported the event it was an Airprox and was therefore fully investigated and assessed by the Airprox Board.

This particular airprox report is interesting because it involves a British Airways passenger plane and an a unmanned aircraft.

On the 22nd of July 2014, an Airbus 320 was on short final to land at Runway 09 Left at Heathrow. The weather was clear and the visibility was good. The pilot saw a small black object as the aircraft descended past 700 feet. He described it as a small radio-controlled helicopter and said that it passed about 20 feet over his left wing.

The model helicopter did not strike the aircraft and there was no further issue, however as the report notes, it was a serious distraction at a critical level of flight. The pilot reported it immediately to Heathrow Tower who warned inbound aircraft of the unidentified object but no further sightings were made.

At 700 feet, it seems likely that the “helicopter” was a multi-rotor aircraft using GPS, which can easily be bought in any enthusiast shop.

The Airprox Board worked with the local model-flying-club but were not able to identify the unmanned aircraft nor trace the operator.


The Board members were satisfied that the A320 crew had seen a model helicopter and were of the unanimous opinion that the operator of the model had chosen to fly it in an entirely inappropriate location. That the dangers associated with flying such a model in close proximity to a Commercial Air Transport aircraft in the final stages of landing were not self-evident was a cause for considerable concern.

A spokesman for the CAA told the BBC that the CAA had to depend on people using their common sense when they operated drones.

It seems odd to even have to point that out, but a similar event at Stockholm resulted in the operator of a drone blissfully unaware that he’d just shut down the airport.

That was just last week, when Stockholm-Bromma Airport had reports of a drone in the local area. The Swedish CAA closed the Bromma CTR for all traffic below 2000 feet which stopped all flights going into and out of the airport.

An hour later they found the man operating the drone. He was documenting the construction of a motorway and had no idea about airspace or that there were any restrictions on where he could fly his drone.

A powerful drone bought on the high street will weigh 7-10 kilograms; large enough to cause real danger to commercial aircraft. The U.S. Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) has stated that reports of drones flying dangerously close to passenger aircraft is becoming a daily occurrence. The fact that they are flown at low altitudes mean that they are often interfering with aircraft on final approach, as in the Heathrow incident.

In the UK, an unmanned aircraft must remain within the line of sight of the person operating it and must not be flown within 150 metres (492 feet) of a congested area or large group of people. In the US, they may not be flown above 400 feet. Both countries have an exclusion zone around commercial airports where no unmanned aircraft can be flown without ATC permission.

Having seen the issue with lasers over the past few years, however, I suspect the issues with hobbyist drones at airports has only just begun.


  • Years ago someone who never has been identified used to aim laser beams at aircraft in the Dublin area.
    “Used to” may be a bit excessive, but a few pilots reported this. None were flying at low altitudes, the person or persons were not in the immediate vicinity of an airport. The most probably explanation is that the lasers were somewhere in a built-up area. For a brief period night clubs had them to attract clubbers. Police (called Gardai here) suspected that slightly intoxicated visitors managed to move the beams and direct them at aircraft overhead. Clubs are no longer using them, I am not sure if this was voluntary or if they were forced to remove them.
    Radio controlled drones are a new and potentially VERY dangerous phenomena. Not that radio controlled aircraft are new, but they used to be mainly in the hands of dedicated amateurs. The new problem is that they can be bought off-the-shelf by would-be aerial photographers.

  • Sylvia, away from drones and diverted light beams:
    I want to thank you for sharing all these stories with your audience of aviation nutters. I wish you a very happy Christmas and please keep going in 2015 !

  • Rudy: I think that is a real frustration of the clubs and dedicated amateurs, how easy it is now for people to get one and have no idea what they are getting into. Over and over again, we’re seeing instances of people who just have no idea about airspace or what needs to be taken into account before launching a drone, let alone using one near a commercial airport.

    Thank you for the Christmas wishes! I definitely plan to keep going for a while yet – it’s great fun!

  • Sylvia,
    How right you are !
    I remember many years ago when I was earning my living with banner towing (=aerial advertising), often people would fly kites near the (uncontrolled) aerodrome.
    This was a particular problem because, although the hazard level they posed was low, believe it or not, the thin manilla ropes of the kites sliced right through the lines of the banner. These were of nylon with a high tensile strength but the friction of the manilla ropes caused such a raise in temperature that it literally melted the much thicker nylon.
    The banner separated from the aircraft, just after the pick-up. The damage was not just to the banner but also of course lost revenue.
    People often just do not realise what harm they are causing when operating near an airport, be it by flying radio controlled drones, playing with laser beams or kites.

    And don’t mention, Sylvia. You are providing a great source of interesting aviation tit-bits and a good way of interacting. Cheers !

  • Sylvia,
    Usually you start a discussion about aviation-related matters from the past. This time you have been prophetic: This morning a spokesman from the CAA here, Irish Aviation Authority, came on radio to alert the public who may be tempted to buy the kind of drones , that your article is about to the fact that they are subject to rules and regulations. And restrictions, e.g. in built-up areas and naturally in the vicinity of airports and aerodromes.
    I have not yet opened their website but it should be on

  • Clearly, some sort of public education is needed. There will always be Idiot Users, right now though a lot of people just don’t seem to have any idea that there are restrictions at all, anymore than there would be for a kite.

  • Only tonight I read that a Las Vegas hotel which used lasers, presumably for advertising purposes, after a number of complaints from pilots and their airlines installed a system which used an approaching aircraft’s TCAS system to shut down the lasers until the aircraft had passed.

  • I honestly think the entire drone issue will only get worse, you can buy them at a relatively low cost and don’t exactly need to spend thousands to fly one in restricted areas.

  • Daniel, that’s very true. And a lot of the restrictions built into them will be ignored because it’s often cheaper to buy imports, even if the users have no intent to bypass security systems. It’s a problem for sure.

Post a comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.