What happens if a drone hits your plane midair? Here’s a detailed analysis

Mar 06 2013 - 5 Comments

On Mar. 4, 2013, at approximately 1:15 p.m. LT, the pilot of Alitalia Flight AZ608, a Boeing 777 registered “EI-ISE”, flying from Rome Fiumicino to New York John F. Kennedy international Airport, spotted a small, unmanned aircraft while on approach to runway 31R at JFK.

The Alitalia B777 was about three miles from the touchdown point at an altitude of approximately 1,500 feet and the drone, described as a four-propeller, black-colored remotely controlled aircraft about 4-feet in diameter, came within 200 feet of it.

Here below you can find the video that embeds the audio of the near miss. Noteworthy, AZ608 used the radio callsign Alitalia 60U “Heavy”.

Whereas the FBI is investigating the incident and looking to identify and locate the aircraft and its operator (flying such dangerous toy next to a major airport is at least insane), it may be interested to analyze what happens when a drone hits a commercial plane configured for landing.

Quadrotor

Image credit: WGBH via KPBS.org

Anything hitting a plane configured for landing, hence slow and close to the ground, can theoretically cause a disaster.
Even if the drone was relatively small (at least if compared to pro-ones, i.e. Predator, Reaper and other famous UAVs) the extent of the damage could be quite large.

Let’s see some of them:

  1. FOD (Foreign Object Damage) in one of the engines: the Boeing 777 is a two-engine liner. Let’s imagine the drone was sucked by one of the two engines. The most obvious result would be loss/reduction of thrust if not engine fire
  2. Impact with wing and/or flight control surfaces: depending on the extent of the damage, an impact with the wing could cause a chunk of it falling apart, or debris damaging some of the control surfaces, with consequent reduction of lift generated by the wing, instability and/or inability to move the control surface (imagine drone parts being stuck between ailerons, flaps, etc.)
  3. Front impact/cockpit incursion: debris could damage or destroy the windshield, entering the cockpit injuring or killing the pilots (once again this depends on the size of the drone and the airspeed at the time of the midair collision)
  4.  Impact with another part of the airframe: if the drone hit other, less critical parts of the plane, it could damage sensors, antennas and other equipment that feed the flight data computer, resulting in a lack of information to the aircrew.
  5. Distraction: if you see a drone coming close to your plane you’ll probably switch your attention towards it with a consequent loss of situational awareness. This can be dangerous, especially if it happens at very low altitude, at night, in poor weather.

Summing up: a lot of bad things can happen, but it all depends on the drone’s size and point of impact. Hence, better you fly your RC-model far away from airports if you don’t want to cause or be part of an aviation incident….or disaster.

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  • harrymac

    to worry about this is just about the same as asteroids hitting Russia. the possibility of it happening again is astronomical. why not worry about some idiot using lasers to blind a pilot or someone shooting fireworks at a plane. it may happen but we can only implement so many safe guards until you won’t leave home. life is dangerous all you can do is enjoy and try and reduce the idiot factor. see the Darwin awards

    • Ano. N. Ymous

      So about once a century is astronomical odds? I see you are an optimist… For your information, finding the idiots and showing them there are consequences from their actions are part of the safeguards and reducing the idiot factor. Darwin Awards hardly apply since the idiot (who was flying that drone) wouldn’t die if the airliner crashed, just the hundred or two passengers who could do zilch about the situation.

  • pp_muscimol

    what about a small drone with a head of a RPG attached to it?

  • Harley

    A UAV that is 4 feet in diameter is a toy? How many hobbyists are running UAVs of that size? Zero.

  • Bosozoku

    @Harley: Millions of Hobby drones fly around in all sizes, their number and size is growing.
    @pp_muscimol: Don’t try that, you’ll have better luck without the drone as firing a rocket with an attached object will not be guideable
    Flying drones is cool and ok but not near airplanes or wherever you might hurt your environment. Like…what happens when you drive your truck through the shopping mall…you don’t!
    I wonder what the difference is between birdstrikes and dronestrikes, a plane should be able to handle birds till a certain weight, but thats soft flesh, not metal tubing and electric motors. Most hobby drones are under 1.7 kg.
    A “real”drone flies autonomous and they’re gonna be here… they might get lost and cause “drone-strikes” Such drones should have an avoiding system.