The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) still doesn’t know the identity of a pilot of a small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that nearly collided with a commercial flight over Tallahassee, Florida on March 22 — or even the model of the UAV itself, Military.com has reported.
The FAA has the difficult task of regulating almost the entirety of America’s highly-complex airspace, and the proliferation of domestic UAVs, which have been used for everything from photography to policing the U.S.-Mexican border, only makes their job harder. Still, this was the first known near-miss between a commercial plane and a UAV over U.S. airspace.
So why do regulators know so little known about the incident?
It’s possible the UAV was a sophisticated remote-control hobby aircraft. “We interviewed the captain,” FAA spokesperson Les Dorr told Business Insider, “and he was adamant that it was a small aircraft, that it looked like an F-4 [Phantom], and that it wasn’t a helicopter or quad-copter.”
The FAA has guidelines regarding the operation of remote-control hobby aircraft. The UAV’s pilot might not even have known about the near-miss or maybe doesn’t want to come forward out of fear of the potential consequences. With no apparent logs or radar of the UAV’s flight, and only the airline pilot’s description to go off of, we may never know the truth of what was nearly a grim landmark incident in U.S. civil aviation. It would have been “catastrophic” had the two aircraft collided, according to a top FAA official.
One possibility is that the UAV originated at nearby Tyndall Air Force Base, outside of Panama City, Florida. This is a viable theory because the near-miss took place at higher altitude than most hobby planes fly, and an F-4 Phantom looks a bit like a type of drone that’s used at Tyndall.
Typically, the FAA would coordinate with domestic UAV operators, including the U.S. military, to avoid situations like the one on March 22. The FAA issues what’s called a Certificate of Authorization (COA) that requires coordination with air traffic control prior to any operation of a UAV, and the agency limits operators to certain locations and altitudes.
“Unmanned aerial systems can’t be operated in the national airspace without some type of authorization from the FAA,” aviation law expert Gregory Winton told Business Insider. “I have a hard time believing that a public-use aircraft would have been operated by the U.S. government without a COA, and if it was, the FAA should have known about it.”
If it turns out the UAV wasn’t a hobby plane, this incident would reveal a troubling lack of coordination between the FAA and the military.
In a future where UAVs are easy to fly and obtain, there could be plenty of businesses, individuals, or even criminal enterprises flying without FAA approval. The March 22 near-hit is still shrouded in mystery — but even if it was the result of an errant military drone, events like it could become increasingly familiar.
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