A drone came within 20 feet of potentially crashing into a French plane

Is it a bird? You wish.
Is it a bird? You wish.
Image: Reuters/Carlo Allegri
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What would happen if a drone were to hit an airplane? A French plane has come uncomfortably close to finding out.

A drone came within 20 feet of a potentially deadly crash with an Air France plane last month (Feb. 19) in what’s being described as the closest shave yet. The pilot was preparing to land in Paris on a flight from Barcelona when he suddenly saw a drone on the plane’s left side. He immediately disengaged the autopilot and informed the rest of the crew of the drone. The aircraft was flying at 5,500 feet.

France’s aviation investigation agency (BEA) described the near miss as a “serious” incident and has launched a probe into what exactly happened. And it’s not just France; the British aviation industry is also worried about the threat of civilian drones.

There were 23 near misses around UK airports over a six-month period last year. One drone came within 66 feet of a plane approaching London City Airport. The incident was one of 12 given an “A” rating by the UK Airprox Board—an independent organization responsible for air safetywhich signifies “a serious risk of collision.”

British pilots are calling for further research into the consequences of a drone hitting a plane. Steve Landells, a former British Airways pilot, told the BBC that drone collisions could result in an uncontrolled engine failure or a smashed cockpit windscreen.

While there has been considerable amount of research into what happens if a bird collides with a plane, there hasn’t been enough data on drones, which are becoming increasingly popular toys (there is even a drone racing league.) The little research that does exist concluded that toy drones pose a greater threat to the aviation industry than bird strikes, which cost around $951 million per year in the US alone.