FAA: Operator of Wayward Drone Unknown

QF-4 Drone

The Federal Aviation Administration investigated an incident last month involving a drone that nearly collided with a commercial airliner in U.S. airspace, but wasn’t able to identify who was flying the unmanned aircraft or what type of plane it was.

The near-miss took place on March 22 outside Tallahassee, Florida. A U.S. Airways commuter flight operated by PSA Airlines traveling from Charlotte, North Carolina, was on an approach about five miles northwest of a runway at Tallahassee airport 2,300 feet above ground when it “passed an unreported and apparently remotely controlled aircraft,” according to a statement from an FAA spokesman.

The commercial pilot reported the “near mid-air collision” to air traffic control and the agency investigated the incident, but “neither the UAS nor the pilot could be identified,” it stated, referring to the acronym for unmanned aerial system.

Indeed, the commercial pilot — whose identity hasn’t been disclosed — initially thought the two aircraft had collided, but an inspection of the airliner afterward found no damage, according to an article by Jack Nicas of The Wall Street Journal.

Jim Williams, who manages the unmanned-aircraft office at the FAA, disclosed the incident on May 8 during a drone conference in San Francisco and it’s believed to be the first case of a large commercial passenger jet almost striking a drone, according to the article.

The news report said the pilot described the craft as “as a camouflaged F-4 fixed-wing aircraft that was quite small.” The FAA spokesman said some media reports have speculated whether the aircraft was actually a QF-4 unmanned aerial target flown by the Air Force from Tyndall Air Force Base outside Panama City.

But a Defense Department spokesman told the Journal that “most military drones aren’t painted with camouflage” and the FAA spokesman said it would be highly unlikely for a military aircraft from Tyndall to find itself in the landing approach of a passenger jet at Tallahassee.

Manned aircraft are required to fly at least 1,000 feet apart vertically and several miles apart laterally; and remote-controlled aircraft are supposed to be operated below 400 feet, according to the article.

The incident comes as the FAA is crafting guidelines for integrating unmanned systems into the national airspace by 2015. The spokesman said he wasn’t aware of any impacts the incident may have caused to the agency’s rule-writing efforts.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of Military.com. He can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • RWB123

    This is sort of joke, but will be whipped up over and over again as the reason the FAA MUST restrict all drone traffic.

    I say it’s a joke because the ‘drone” that is being described here is a radio controlled model plane of a type that RC hobbyists have been flying around for decades. There is no way that the fool operating it should have had it anywhere near the approach lanes of the airport - He should definitely get the chop for that - but there is also no way that the FAA is going to get model aircraft this small fitted automatic avoidance gear either.

    • Marc Winger

      That sounds about right.

      • Bruce

        The issue is that as this tech becomes cheaper and cheaper in a turn-key format the threshold for entry-level users is lowered as well. Eventually those douchebags that shine lasers at pilots at the moment are going to be putting drones with cameras up in their path instead. Second video in a youtube search for RC near-miss is someone putting one up at roughly the same altitude as an airliner over a city, close enough that the RC gets washed out in the airliner’s wake.
        There are also plenty of videos of RC’s being operated through and above clouds - as much as i’d like to believe that all the flyers are doing it in the correct locations/with prior notice to the FAA i’m not that naive.

    • Stan

      You are so right. We need to wait until a plane with several hundred people on it or a helicopter falls out of the sky because there is no way to make an objective decision on this issue otherwise.

    • https://www.facebook.com/lewis.major3 Lewis Major

      Something you failed to note in your remarks is that there is NO WAY a R/C fixed wing would reach a altitude of 2300′ AGL…

      • ajspades

        No way huh? http://www.suasnews.com/2009/10/98/98/ http://www.ctie.monash.edu.au/hargrave/cooper_fai… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lRcRpi4MJiA

      • Rich

        Quality RC plane ranges can can be anywhere between 500m to 5km. Some of the high dollar RC planes look, sound, and act just like a jet. The true RC hobbyist would put the North Korean drone program to shame.

    • https://www.facebook.com/kim.scholer.9 Kim Scholer

      Must have been one helluva large RC controlled model, if the commercial pilot was able both to identify it, and suspect it was close enough to have struck his plane.

  • https://www.facebook.com/lance.brown.77128 Lance Brown

    The USAF has a secret F-4E squadron no one knows about till now !!!!! LOL

  • hibeam

    Little drones will soon be flying around delivering everything you can imagine. Unless the feds get involved. Then China will make it happen. But it will happen.

  • bob

    sounds like a toy model plane…

  • Rob

    It was from Cuba. It was armed with 2 cigars. It was released from high altitude in international airspace. It cost them a bunch for the mission but most was sponsored by the drug market. So it was their way of washing away the dirty money :D

  • Citizen of the World

    It raises another problem: Radar didn’t detect it. I read elsewhere that our current air defense systems for the United States currently doesn’t work well against drones and missiles.

    Air traffic control doesn’t use military radars, but they need to track all air traffic too.

    • muttling

      Detecting an aircraft or missile that doesn’t have a transponder at this low of an altitude is incredibly difficult until it’s right on top of you. Even with military radars.

    • deanegilmour

      Model aircraft are and always have been restricted to below 1000 feet and no where within three miles of an active duty commercial airfield unless prior notification and approval has been accomplished with the FAA and any Air control facility in the area. The operator was flying totally against all laws controlling US airspace and endangering all commercial, private, and military air traffic. The recent proposal by the huge online sales company (whose name escapes these old grey matter for the moment) is never going to happen without ATC control over these delivery drones and the numbers they are talking about is totally unreasonable. These delivery drones would have to be restricted to max 100 feet above the surface and carry radar reflector and radio transponder equipment to even begin to be safely operated especially in large urban areas with one or more major airports.

      • deanegilmour

        Just remembered the Online sales company name.. AMAZON

    • deanegilmour

      And who says ATC doesn’t use military type radar. Civil and military are both subject to the same radar. As a matter of fact military controllers are certified by and controlled by the FAA and always have been, as long as they are operating within the continental airspace of the USA. I was a Marine Air controller and the FAA even told the Marine Corps how many hours I could be on stand, how many hours I had to have off duty before going on duty, and what medications, if any, I could take and still work in a tower or RATTC. Just as long as I was working on a field or area of responsibility within US airspace. Every transmission is recorded, even in combat zones. The most important device in our operation in Nam was the recorder both in aircraft and on the ground to insure safe operations. The first thing done when a incident does happen is pull the tapes and make sure protocol was followed and woe be until the controller or the pilot who did not follow procedures. Either one had better have good reason for not doing so. Loss of certification was the first thing and jail or brig time could follow.

  • anthony

    Again a incident with a drone., And it allmast collides with our own US Airplane and passes radar.Or it was flying drugs into our country? The Minstry of Defense has to give a Answer.
    Or do we wait until a real accident happens.? I mean a apoligie on its place is the least that can be done,That drone was not in war country,or was the flight operater sleeping?

    • https://www.facebook.com/greysave Gregory Savage

      We don’t have a ministry of defense…

      • anthony

        Mr. Perfect again!!

    • deanegilmour

      Must be a Brit with the “ministry” designation

    • RC’s are not Drones!

      You make no sense. Please learn English - it hurt just to read this.

  • hibeam

    When we solve the duck problem let me know. The very next thing on my worry list is toy airplanes.

    • blight_

      Ban bird flocks to protect from a double-bird-strike?

      Bird control. It’s for the planes. And the cars.

      • deanegilmour

        Single birds smaller that Condor or such do not or normally do not show up on radar but flocks do and are constantly looked out for especially in heavy air traffic areas. Hell with the new Dopler radar even rainfall and wind shear can be observed it there is a dopler system within its range of such. I remember times when even large flocks of ducks and geese could be tracked on the old non-dopler systems

  • atm

    Drug cartels

  • jamesb

    …..no description of the ‘drone’, eh?

    it certainly wasn’t an ole phantom ……

  • Dfens

    It wouldn’t surprise me if it was a QF-4 from Tyndall. I’ve seen them with the camo paint job flying from that very base. It was probably one that had been “shot down” but had recovered before hitting the water and flew off in whatever direction it recovered to. There may not have been a single system working on that airplane except the engines (maybe just 1) and fuel pumps. I wonder if they disable the on-board fire suppression systems when they create these QF airplanes? If they don’t, perhaps they should.

  • Taylor

    Can we just call this thing an rc airplane already?

    You probably won’t find the operator anyways unless one of his rc buddies sees this story on the news and rats him out.

    Probably won’t happen though, they won’t want to bring faa attention to themselves and their hobby.

    • Dfens

      Most UAV’s are simply glorified RC airplanes. They have a satellite link instead of a direct RF link to the transmitter, other than that they are RC airplanes. It doesn’t much matter if you’re talking about a QF-4 or a Predator. Hell, modern passenger jet aircraft can have their flight plan reprogrammed by a guy on the ground. That’s several levels of complexity of control greater than most unmanned aircraft have, since many of them don’t even have autopilots, let alone flight management systems.

      • coy

        Youre right, i saw a guy throw a 6foot long version of a drown togather in a few hours powered by an engine from a weedwacker.. he used a standard digital RC radio system. What most people doesnt know is you can use lots of bands and power for the radios if you hold an amateur radio license.

  • Paul H

    Maybe that it is one of those drones that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un keeps talking about. (LOL)

  • JJ Murray

    An F-4 is not “small” so I seriously doubt this was a QF-4. Most likely a hobbyist flying his radio controlled airplane where it shouldn’t have been. But hey, any excuse to prove the FAA needs to have more control I guess.

    • Nate

      To someone who flies commercial airliners for a living, even an F-4 might seem “small”. It’s a relative descriptive term.

      -Not that I’d rule out a small-scale RC either though.

  • James Watson

    Nowdays , if you have the funds, you can build a fairly large scale radio controlled jet. Almost every jet imagined can be had along with an actual miniature jet turbine engine, which runs off of actual jet aviation fuel. With todays radio systems and onboard telemetry systems a person could.fly beyond visual range. Ofter further than one mile. I imagine this rogue drone encounter was actually the above mentioned scenario.

  • Heliman

    this is great!

  • RCs are not Drones

    This is the Drive-by media creating a story from nothing. “RC plane? Let’s call it a Drone and then we’ll have a story!. Yep! Print it! We’ll also force the FAA to address a non-issue.”

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