Fear of drones

It looks as if the 17 April “drone strike” on a British Airways aircraft on approach to Heathrow airport may not have been a collision with a drone after all. Maybe just a wind-tossed plastic bag – the investigation is still in progress.

In an aircraft travelling at about 150kt (170mph/275km/h) on final approach, small objects can suddenly appear and flash past. At that point the pilots are concentrating on monitoring the aircraft’s performance and aiming it at the runway. So it’s easy for a pilot to misidentify whatever the object is.

But does that mean we don’t need to worry about drones?

There some very simple rules about how you may operate a drone, so the relevant question is whether people will obey the rules – or even read them in the first place.

Drones are getting popular among ordinary people, mainly for airborne video recording or still photography. First the selfie, then the selfie-stick, now the airborne selfie?

Lads mags are full of enthusiastic advice for gadget-crazy young men. Some lads will be given a drone as a birthday present. If they are given one, will they read the operating instructions when they’ve opened the pack, let alone the legal restrictions on their use?

Some won’t, but does that mean they will inevitably operate their drone in such a way as to endanger aircraft? The law of averages says that one day someone will – possibly unintentionally – fly a drone in an airport approach or departure path.

But given another contemporary public threat to aircraft – commercially available hand-held laser pointers being shone into pilots’ eyes during take-off or final approach to land – an unsettling mentality exists out there. Use of lasers in this way is against the law, but incidents are on the increase.

So when a drone hits an aircraft, what will the result be?

Most are small and light – between one and 5kg. If one of these hits the aircraft wings, tail or forward fuselage it will cause damage but not make it impossible for the pilots to fly safely.

But if it hits the flightdeck windscreen or the engines the results could be serious. Exactly how serious we are not sure, because tests have not been carried out.

A drone-strike on an engine will probably cause its failure, and if it’s a heavier device it might smash the windscreen and injure or kill a pilot. Either of these events is very unlikely to be terminal for the aircraft, but they both could be. This would depend on the degree of direct damage and whether or not it has secondary effects.

Large-scale public drone use is still not with us, but it’s on the way. With greater use will come greater awareness among users as well as the public. That’s what the Civil Aviation Authority and Department for Transport are banking on – the public’s basic common sense.

Terrorists are unlikely to use drones against aircraft because there are more effective ways of attempting to disrupt commercial aviation.

But for those on the fringes of society – the kind who use powerful laser-pointers – dicing with risk can be attractive.

What the authorities have to decide is whether this risk is serious enough to require, for example, all drone users to register. Or some form of unique identifier like a transponder or GPS tracker to be fitted to all machines.

They’d rather not have to introduce expensive bureacracy to control the public use of devices that, used sensibly according to existing rules, are pretty much harmless.


Celebrating a Concorde anniversary

At precisely 11:40 GMT on 21 January 2016, a group of people who had designed, built or flown Concorde raised their champagne glasses to the 40th anniversary of the type’s first take-off for a commercial flight.

Plural take-offs to be precise. At 11:40 GMT British Airways’ aircraft began its take-off roll at London Heathrow for Bahrain and, simultaneously – perfectly choreographed via an HF radio link – Air France’s Concorde crew also engaged reheat bound for Rio de Janeiro.

It has been 12 years since, in 2003, the last Concorde flights took place, and all the experts and afficionados gathered at Brooklands last Thursday confirmed – despite many expressed wishes that at least one airframe could be made flyable at some time in the future – it will never get airborne again for air shows, let alone with commercial passengers on board.

Forty years is a long time. The Concorde on show at Brooklands may have still gleamed in the pale winter sun, but the passage of time shows on the faces of those who took part in the Concorde commercial operations story, especially from its very beginning in 1976.

Concorde with Charlie 2

G-BBDG at Brooklands on the 40th anniversary of the type’s first commercial departures

Capt John Eames (below), one of the first batch of BA’s Concorde commanders, was there to raise a glass of champagne, along with Concorde fleet senior stewardess Jeannette Hartley, both dressed in uniforms from that period. Hartley served as Concorde cabin crew from 1977 to 1998, spinning that magic that made everybody who flew on the machine feel special from the moment of check-in.

Jeannette Hartley & Capt John Eames

An event like this serves to remind aviation people – and ordinary souls – just how special Concorde was.

It was an amazing technical achievement and the ultimate adventure in commercial air transport.

Just one of the proofs is that it has no successor.

It’s extraordinary, in this world of breakneck technological advance, that I can tell my six-year-old granddaughter I flew as an airline passenger at twice the speed of sound, then add reluctantly that she can’t do that even if she chooses a career as an RAF fastjet pilot.

This reminder of a historic event was, itself, surrounded by history at Brookands Museum, the home of of both British motor sport and British aviation. The gathering was in the Vickers room (below), complete with the forward end of a Vickers Vimy embedded in the wall. The airscrew on the left was one of those that propelled Alcock and Brown’s first flight across the Atlantic.

Vickers Vimy room at Brooklands

A presentation by Capt Eames entitled Concorde – a pilot’s perspective, drew reminiscences from several of his peers about the event in their supersonic career that they found most memorable.

One such pilot recalled a training flight to Gander, Newfoundland, during a single 24h period. Outbound and return flights each took little more than 2h, but the phenomenon that stopped him in his tracks was seeing two sunrises and two sunsets on that day, and one of the sunrises was in the west.

Work that one out!

The first sunset was in UK before take-off. The “sunrise” in the west occurred as Concorde overtook the sun flying westbound, then after landing the sun set once more. Then, on the eastbound leg back to UK, the sun rose as one would expect it to, except that, at nearly 60,000ft above sea level, it rises incredibly early while the earth beneath the aircraft is still in darkness.

And we can’t do that any more.