Must airplane pilots now watch out for jetpacks?

On Behalf of | Oct 16, 2020 | Aviation Accidents |

The most interesting recent news in aviation had almost nothing to do with airplanes. Rather, it was the story of a jetpack sighting near Los Angeles.

According to NPR and other news agencies, crew members aboard a China Airlines flight headed to Los Angeles claimed they saw someone in a jetpack flying at nearly 6,000 feet. This was the second jetpack sighting near L.A. within six weeks, although the first was at the much lower altitude of 3,000 feet. Because the story reads something like a Loch Ness Monster sighting with a cartoonish sci-fi angle, most news agencies have approached as a strange bit of trivia. But what if it were the start of something more dangerous?

Jetpacks aren’t an imminent threat, but drones may be

The truth is that jetpacks are unlikely to pose a major aviation threat anytime soon. However, there is another far more concerning threat—drones.

The Federal Aviation Association (FAA) reports that there are already more than 1.7 million registered drones in the United States. And you can expect to see more in the future as companies like Amazon continue to push for new ways to use commercial drones. This means there’s a chance that the skies may soon become a good deal more crowded.

But it’s not just the idea that there are more things flying in the skies that make drones concerning. Experts note there are already more than 10 billion birds in America’s airspace, but there are very few bird strikes each year. Even more, airplane manufacturers design their planes to withstand these strikes. Commercial airplane engines must be able to withstand the intake of birds weighing as much as eight pounds.

So, what makes drones more concerning? As Forbes recently noted, there are several factors:

  • Drones are denser than birds and can weigh significantly more, making collisions more potentially damaging
  • Drones have already been used by militaries to deliver explosives
  • Recreational users do not need to register their drones, meaning they may fly them with little or no training or awareness of their impact on commercial air traffic
  • Drones can be hacked or used to hack nearby wi-fi networks
  • Geofencing and government restrictions on drone altitude and location may not prevent users from flying their drones into or near dangerous locations like airport terminals

To date, there have been numerous drone-related incidents. One drone struck a military helicopter. Other drone sightings shut down airports and delayed air traffic. No plane has yet crashed due to a collision with a drone, but the threat grows with every new drone. And the victims of that first crash—or their families—may struggle to find justice if, or when, that moment arrives. After all, how many recreational drone users carry insurance to cover the downing of a commercial airplane?

Have the airlines been getting lucky?

Given all the risks that drones present, we may feel fortunate that we haven’t yet witnessed a major incident. Delayed flights and stalled airports are irritating, but they don’t compare with a full-scale airplane crash.

Let us hope we never see a drone-related airplane crash. Even if it sometimes feels like that first crash is imminent. We can hope that the drone manufacturers, their users and the airlines all adhere to strict safety guidelines. And then we can worry more about the big stuff—like rogue jetpack users.