Jim Kilpatrick of the Bandit Flight Team, a Triangle-based group that performs national anthem flyovers at local sporting events, was in his plane, 1,000 feet above the MacGregor Downs subdivision in Cary on Saturday, when something caught his eye.
“I thought it was a bird,” he said.
It turned out to be a drone that flew between the group of six planes, narrowly missing two of them. The pilots had been circling, waiting to start their show at a North Carolina Courage women’s soccer game at WakeMed Soccer Park.
Kilpatrick notified air traffic control of the incident, which the Federal Aviation Administration is now investigating. Operating drones around airplanes, helicopters and airports is illegal, according to the FAA, and unauthorized operators may be subject to fines and criminal charges, including possible jail time. Among the other restrictions on drones is a ban on flying higher than 400 feet in the air.
This was the first time the Bandit Flight Team faced a near miss with a drone, but as drones become more prevalent, Kilpatrick doesn’t expect it will be the last.
Reported sightings of hazardous or unauthorized drone activity from pilots, citizens and law enforcement agencies have increased over the past two years, according to the FAA; nearly 450 reports were made to the FAA nationwide between July and September 2016.
These include drones seen flying within five miles of Raleigh-Durham International Airport and Charlotte Douglas International Airport. And on July 9, 2016, a drone was reported flying 2,000 feet over a golf course in Thomasville, west of High Point.
There are plenty of videos online of people flying their drones above the clouds – well beyond the FAA’s maximum altitude limit. Going that high increases the chances the drone operator could lose control of the aircraft or encounter an airplane or helicopter.
Kilpatrick said part of the problem is that drones are allowing people with no flight experience or understanding of air traffic rules to be up in the air.
“One of these drones is going to hit a plane and cause a major issue or crash,” he said. “My guess is it will probably happen sometime in the future.”
There has never been a confirmed collision between a drone and a manned aircraft, according to the FAA.
“Every incident has turned out to be a bird strike or damage due to another cause other than a drone,” FAA spokesman Les Dorr said.
But a crash, if it happens, could be disastrous.
Kilpatrick said the Bandit Flight Team’s aircraft flies at 120 miles per hour, and that a drone hitting the plane could crack its plexiglass windshield, killing or incapacitating the pilot. It also could cause engine failure, bringing the plane down.
As technology continues to improve, it can be tempting to push drones to new heights, especially now that some allow operators to see a live view from the drone’s camera.
Current FAA regulations don’t allow drone flight beyond the operator’s line of sight. Commercial operators can apply for waivers for expanded operations, but only three companies in the country have been granted waivers to fly beyond line of sight.
Drone operators also are prohibited from flying at night, within five miles of an airport, over groups of people or near emergency response efforts, such as a fire or a crime scene. The FAA encourages the public to report unauthorized drone operations to local law enforcement and to help discourage it.
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-829-4845: @KTrogdon
▪ Register your drone at www.registermyuas.faa.gov. Drones under .55 pounds do not need to be registered.
▪ Always fly below an altitude of 400 feet and fly within your direct line of sight.
▪ Do not fly drones that weigh more than 55 pounds.
▪ Do not fly at night, even if your drone is equipped with lights.
▪ Do not fly within five miles of an airport, near stadiums or other public events. You can use mobile applications like B4UFLY to ensure that you are not within a five-mile radius.
▪ Do not fly over groups of people.
▪ Never fly near emergency response efforts, such as fires.
▪ Never fly under the influence of drugs or alcohol.