The quadcopter drone that crashed into the White House lawn on Monday may have been innocuous, but at some point there’s going to be a disaster — and everybody sees it coming. The global skies are getting more cluttered by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) morphing into increasingly bizarre and complex designs, and regulators can’t scramble fast enough to keep up with the galloping technologies, many of which now employ stealth configurations.
In November, The Washington Post reviewed FAA records and discovered pilots had reported “a surge” of near-miss incidents since June 1, where drones came within a few feet or seconds of colliding with conventional aircraft. In an environment where the odds of potentially catastrophic encounters are accelerating, could an unintended consequence be getting more critical eyes on UFOs?
Since 1999, the nonprofit National Aviation Reporting Center on Anomalous Phenomena has been studying The Great Taboo — preferring the less loaded acronym UAP (unidentified aerial phenomena) — from flight-safety perspectives. NARCAP’s concerns aren’t so much over mid-air collisions — UAP apparently don’t obey the laws of traditional aerodynamics and are agile enough to turn on a dime — as they are about pilot reaction. NARCAP researchers scoured FAA cases dating back to the 1950s and discovered the biggest danger was a tendency by pilots to overcorrect when confronted by the often abrupt approach of UAP. No fatalities on file, yet, but a few injuries here and there, and certainly a potential for disaster anytime a pilot attempts a sudden evasive maneuver.
Inject drones into that lengthy FAA track record and things get dicey real quick. In a 2013 report titled “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Unidentified Aerial Phenomena: Can We Tell Them Apart?,” NARCAP’s Richard Haines and Wayne Reed drew distinctions between UAP and UAV. To mention a few, drones can be pretty noisy; UAP are largely mute. Unlike UAV, most drones have range, altitude and speed limitations. UAP maneuverability makes even the most sophisticated drones look archaic. “Unless something basic has been overlooked in this overview,” states the report, “it seems reasonable to assert that none of the UAV that are reviewed here are able to disappear suddenly from sight, execute instantaneous ninety degree (or other angles) turns, accelerate at extremely high speeds, hover in complete silence or perform small, constant radius somersaults or corkscrew flight around a single point, suddenly change shape or size (without changing their orientation or distance from the viewer) — all of which UAP have been reported to be able to do.”
NARCAP published yet another example just this month, from Australian researchers Keith Basterfield and Paul Dean. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), described it as “a near collision with an unknown object involving a De Havilland DHC-8, VH-XFX near Perth Airport, Western Australia on 19 March 2014,” and filed it under the “serious incident” category. The charter turboprop had 53 passengers aboard that clear morning when it was confronted by an “unknown object” that, according to the crew, was coming head-on and sported “a bright strobe light” up front that “appeared to track” toward the DHC-8. The pilot had to bank the avoid the collision with the bogey, which passed within 65 feet horizontally and 100 feet vertically.
A strobing light amid clean skies was weird enough, but the ATSB report, which also said the object left no radar tracks, logged it as “cylindrical in shape and grey in colour.” But get this: The DHC-8 was traveling at 3,700 feet; at the moment of the encounter, according to the ATSB, the area below 3,500 feet was restricted military airspace. Upon being interviewed by Paul Dean, the chief pilot said the object was shaped like a cigarette, only “it was green, military green, in colour.”
The pilot informed Dean nobody told him to shut up about what he saw. But after that interview, which was conducted through the airline, Dean’s access to the pilot, and to the safety officer he hoped to question, went dark. “No more emails, no more return calls,” Dean writes. “It was like they’d either had enough of the case, or, were told not to keep discussing it.
“I wonder of course, if it was a missile or rocket, where the body of it is,” he continues. “If it was a UAV then we have to wonder what type?! I looked and looked and no UAVs are pencil-like, all green-grey, or have a strobe at the front. It’s weird. Whatever it was it nearly took that plane out.”
Just one more thing we’ll likely never figure out. But what if drone technology — military or otherwise — begins to seriously imperil our skyways? Might authorities start chatting up UFOs as a cover for their mistakes?