Aircraft Accidents and UAS Data, Part One

This is going to be a two-part blog looking at a report submitted to the International Journal of Aviation, Aeronautics and Aerospace (IJAAA) and published September 12, 2016, through Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s (ERAU) Scholarly Commons. It is titled Seeing the Threat: Pilot Visual Detection of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems in Visual Meteorological Conditions (commons.erau.edu/ijaaa/vol3/iss3/13). It was written by Jon Loffi, Jamey Jacob, and Jared Dunlap, all of Oklahoma State University (OK); and Ryan Wallace of Polk State University (FL). It is a well-researched paper that looks at the risk(s) that commercial and general aviation aviators experience flying in the same National Airspace System (NAS), with and being able to see Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) operating within the NAS.
It appears that these gentlemen expended a lot of time and effort to research this topic, which this author feels should have been evaluated years ago. I won’t question the lack of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) participation, aside from statistical information, e.g. mid-air sighting data; the FAA Mike Monroney Center at Will Rogers Airport is only 75 miles from Oklahoma State University’s main campus in Stillwater, OK. There is housed several simulators, one being a 737 simulator that would have proven to be a reliable source of data of how UAVs can/can’t be seen from a landing aircraft, without risk to human safety. To be honest, I have concerns that the conditions in the paper were obscure to the urgency of the issue, but I will look at the data next week.
But first, I admire these gentlemen for researching this topic; never before have I felt that we treated an issue such as this (UAS in the NAS) with an attitude of ‘Tombstone’ investigating – reactive, not proactive. If I come off as cynical towards them, it is because I am an analytical person by nature; my writing sometimes comes off as cold, distant, so I mean no disrespect. Unfortunately, I’m often focused too much on the hole I’m digging, I fail to see who gets hit with the dirt I’m throwing over my shoulder.
According to the report, between November 2014 and January 2016 the FAA reported 1346 sightings and near misses of UAS platforms. Think about that: that amounts to over 100 sightings nationwide per month or at least three per day. And those were the ones reported or where the UAS was even seen.
The three writers note that “Until such benchmarks are established for electronic Detect, Sense, and Avoid Systems, pilots must rely on visual means to ensure positive separation from UAS platforms.” This is why the FAA simulators would have been invaluable. The report estimates that 58.8% (391 events in fifteen months) “of UAS encounters occurred near airports where UAS operations are prohibited.”
This is remarkable! For one, sightings of UAVs near JFK, LGA and EWR have been made since at least early 2014 that I’m aware of, probably earlier. Secondly, I’ve flown in the cockpit of major airliners for some thirty-three years, airliners that ranged from Embraer 135s to DC10s. Even in the best visual conditions with unlimited visibility a UAS can be invisible to the naked eye against a background of trees, neighborhoods, oceans, mountains, etc., even if you are expecting to see something that small; it is twice as hard to gauge its speed, altitude and direction. Approach speeds of an airliner at altitudes that a UAS can operate are between 150 to 200 knots (172 to 230 MPH); take-off speeds can be higher with the nose pointed up at the clouds. These are the busiest workload times that airline pilots must endure, even spreading the wealth between two pilots.
So let’s look at some undeniable facts of flying: airline pilots on approach are extremely busy, e.g. manning the radios, looking for other more noticeable traffic that would show on their radar, deploying flaps at the right time, lining up the approach, checking engine gauges, dealing with onboard anomalies, checking instruments, lowering gear and checking for lock. Now it’s expected for them to scan the horizon for a device the size and bulk of a barbeque grate in a 3-D landscape (X, Y and Z axis). The UAS does not register on radar, is not lighted and the operator has the visual limits of a straight line where he/she is flying the drone – and nowhere else. To give some perspective, in those conditions a UAS would be impacting the airliner before the pilot knew what hit it.
Some airlines even require their pilots to shoot approaches using the Heads-up device (HUD); what this means is the Captain is using the HUD; its screen is littered with digital information the Captain must reconcile while the First Officer is occupied with the remaining tasks of landing the airliner.
Imagine the effect of an airliner struggling to stay in the sky; lateral control is greatly reduced due to engine ingestion resulting in unexpected yaw at an unrecoverable altitude. Think US Air 1549, or worse, American 587 over a heavily populated area.
This week a Porter Airlines Bombardier Q400 had a near miss with a UAV while approaching Toronto; two flight attendants were hurt. A Q400 is slower than a jet, but even then the reaction was not quick enough to avoid injuring two flight personnel while making evasive maneuvers to dodge the UAV.
The Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) disputes these findings of the FAA; they have conducted their own research which, while reducing the FAA’s numbers, does nothing to eliminate the reported risks the UASs make to the NAS. They argue that terms like ‘close calls’ and ‘near misses’ are inaccurate, qualifying instead as ‘UAS sightings’; a rose by any other name …
The AMA insists that since December 2015 reports of sightings have steadily declined and that since many of the sightings can’t be substantiated for distance, speed or altitude, the FAA’s numbers are in error.
There is a fact the report establishes that needs to be addressed in this world where unwelcome UASs intrude upon the NAS with no notice, especially near airports. From the moment the pilot of any aircraft, e.g. general aviation, helicopter or airliner, first recognizes a UAS, it takes 12.5 seconds for the aircraft to respond to the pilots’ evasive commands.
When one is racing up on a destructive obstacle in its path, 12.5 seconds is an eternity.

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