Pilots Report Drones Flying Near JFK Flight Path

Three pilots have reported unmanned drones flying too close to their jetliners as they approached Kennedy Airport this week, NBC 4 New York has learned.

On Wednesday afternoon, the pilot of JetBlue flight 842 from Savannah, Georgia, reported a drone flying at about 400 feet as the plane was on approach crossing from Nassau County into New York City, according to federal officials. 

Air traffic control recordings captured the pilot's concern. 

"About two miles out on the final, maybe 4 to 300 feet, looks like one of those unmanned drones is flying right on the final," the pilot told air traffic control. 

Nassau County Police, the FBI and the FAA were all alerted.

Earlier in the week, on Sunday, a pilot of Virgin Atlantic flight 9 from London reported a drone sighting near the 747, just after 8 p.m. The pilot said the drone was flying high, at about 3,000 feet, while the plane was flying over Nassau County on approach to Kennedy. 

About a minute later, a pilot of Delta flight 838 arriving from San Diego reported a drone was flying too close to its left wing, though the drone never came into contact with the Boeing 737, according to the FAA. The plane was also over Nassau County at the time, about 10 miles out on approach to Kennedy Airport. 

"We just had something fly over us," the Delta pilot told air traffic control in recordings. "I don't know if it was a drone or a balloon, it just came real quick."

A Nassau County police spokesman said the department sent up a helicopter to search for the drone and its operator on both Sunday and Wednesday but could not locate a device.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the FBI are investigating. If the operator of the drone is found, the person could face criminal charges, including reckless endangerment.

The drone sightings come after an NYPD helicopter pilot reported a separate near-miss with a drone over Brooklyn on Sept. 17.

Also in September, a Russian tourist was arrested after he was allegedly caught operating a drone around the Brooklyn Bridge, and a filmmaker was arrested for allegedly flying a drone outside the National Tennis Center in Queens during the US Open.

Ken Honig, a former high-ranking official with the Port Authority, which operates New York City's major airports, said drone operators probably don't realize the devastating damage they could cause. 

"These planes are all being approached [by drones] while the planes are landing, so they're close to the ground, which means the pilot doesn't have a whole lot of room for manuevering," he said. 

"If the unmanned aerial vehicle gets too close to a plane, it could get sucked into a jet engine. The kind of damage done by a bird could be amplified by the metal parts in a UAV," he said. 

The FAA requires UAVs, or drones, to keep a low altitude and safe distance from commercial aircraft. On Wednesday, the National Transportation Safety Board ruled it now has the power to hold drone operators accountable when they fly the machines recklessly. 

The FAA has been trying to cope with a surge in use of unmanned aircraft, some weighing no more than a few pounds and available for purchase on the Internet and in hobby shops for as little as a few hundred dollars. More than a million small drone aircraft have been sold worldwide in the past few years, and a growing number of them are turning up in U.S. skies near airports and airliners.

Congress has directed the FAA to safely integrate drones of all sizes into U.S. skies by the fall of 2015, but it is clear the agency won't meet that deadline. 

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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