Drones flying dangerously close to airplanes over protected airspace

Posted at 2:02 PM, Jun 29, 2018
and last updated 2018-06-29 20:20:24-04

Drones flying into protected airspace around airports is a growing new danger for pilots.

Records show pilots reported almost 250 unregistered drones illegally flying in protected airspace in Florida just last year. Nineteen of these cases happened in the Tampa Bay Area. Florida is second only to California in the number of these incidents.

Drones flying too close to commercial flights pose a serious danger to large planes. Drones can be sucked into the engine or crash into the cockpit window, injuring or killing a pilot.

For nearly 10-years now, Jeff Munford prefers the peace of flying over the stresses of a bustling city. The skies, he thought, safer than the roads. All until a near miss he didn’t see coming.

“And then it turns right at me and I jot a little bit and it goes right by the left wing," described Munford.
It was a drone flying 30-50 feet next to his Cessna.

Munford was flying over the Georgia-Florida line with a friend and two children in the backseat.

But federal records show these close encounters are happening more than ever in protected airspace.

“It would have killed us there’s no doubt about it," said Munford.

This pilot is just worried it’s only a matter of time before it turns deadly. But what’s being done about it? In the last two years, the Tampa Police Department identified 12 drone pilots flying where they weren’t supposed to and passed that info along to the FAA but say enforcement is up to the federal agency.

A spokesperson for the St. Petersburg Police Department says they do not have the authority to regulate airspace. They can only investigate if a local or state crime occurs.

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office says when the FAA notifies them a deputy in the area may check it our or just keep an eye out as best they can for a drone in the sky. PCSO says it has not written any citations in the last two years.

The question of just who enforces the rules when someone illegally flies a drone over airspace is further unclear when the question was posed to the FAA.

A spokesperson said, "The FAA does not impose criminal penalties. That's a question for law enforcement."

Munford just wants drone pilots to act responsibly.

“It’s down right dangerous. The people operating these things need to know they’re putting people’s lives at risk.”

Last month, the Government Accountability Office determine the FAA needs to do more. A study released by the agency came with a stiff warning in its title: "FAA should improve its management of safety risks."