Airbus A321 Came Within 20 ft Of Unidentified Flying Object Departing Heathrow

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An A321 taking off from Heathrow on 16 October had a lucky escape after a suspected drone came within 20 ft of the aircraft. The pilot team onboard the plane reported a “bright red object” passing down the aircraft’s left side as it was climbing altitude.

An A321 came within 20 ft of an unidentified object after taking off from Heathrow Airport. Photo: Getty Images

Near-miss designated a ‘Category A’ risk

On 16 October, an Airbus A321 took off from Heathrow Airport on a scheduled commercial flight. The pilots of the aircraft had been forewarned about the presence of a drone east of the airport but were able to take-off without incident. Once the plane reached 3,000 ft in altitude, a bright red object passed by the left wing and was immediately reported to ATC.

London Heathrow Airport, COVID-19 tests, Departing passengers
Heathrow Airport has seen several near-miss incidents over the years. Photo: Getty Images

The severity of the incident led the UK Airprox Board to designate it at the highest level of risk – Category A. If the unidentified object were indeed a drone, it would have been flying 7.5 times higher than the legal limit in the UK. In a monthly report, the UK Airprox Board, in charge of investigating near misses in UK airspace, concluded that chance played a significant role in the aircraft emerging unscathed.

“The Board considered that the pilot’s overall account of the incident portrayed a situation where providence had played a major part in the incident and/or a definite risk of collision had existed.” – The UK Airprox Board

One of many near-misses in the UK

There have been several similar incidents across the UK over the past few months alone. On September 1 at Leeds Bradford Airport, an unidentified flying object came within just 10 ft of a Boeing 737 attempting to land. Pilots claimed a bright object appeared to move ‘head-on’ towards the plane as it was on approach.

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There have been several ‘Category A’ incidents in the UK over the past few months. Photo: Getty Images

The UK Airprox Board also designated the incident as Category A, noting that ‘the object appeared without warning and there was no time to act.’ While local police helicopters reported seeing flying lanterns in the area, ‘neither of the pilots believed what they saw was a lantern.’

Only three days later, on September 4, another Category A incident occurred at Manchester Airport involving an Airbus A320. Pilots spotted a large drone, approximately 50 cm in length, flying at a staggering 8,000 ft altitude – 20 times the legal altitude limit for drones. In this case, pilots claimed that the object ‘narrowly’ missed the nose of the plane.

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Strict laws on drone operation were likely broken

The UK has first-hand experience that drones and airports don’t mix well. Aside from the recent near-misses, airports in the UK frequently experience drone disruption, including seven Category A incidents in just two months in 2019. Over the past decade, incidents involving aircraft and drones have increased by over 3,000%.

To counter this, authorities had to make changes to the law to factor in the increasing popularity of drones. Under UK law, it is illegal to pilot a drone within three miles (4.8 km) of an airport or at an altitude exceeding 400 ft. If the incident at Heathrow on 16 October did involve a drone, the operator would have been breaking multiple laws at once. Such incidents can have a major impact on airlines and airports – in 2019, easyJet claimed to have lost over £15 million due to drone disturbances around Gatwick Airport.

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