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Drones spotted near Charleston airport part of growing national trend, FAA says

By Prentiss Findlay, The Post and Courier

Drones are a growing concern among pilots and regulators nationwide as more encounters with “unmanned aerial systems” around airports or as high as 11,000 feet are reported, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Nearly all of the hundreds of documented drone encounters listed in a new FAA report were sightings that did not require quick action to avoid a collision. However, some pilots said that a drone passed too quickly to react. One pilot described putting his plane into a 35-degree bank to create more distance between his aircraft and a nearby drone.

What do you think?
Do you think recreational drones pose a threat to citizens’ privacy and/or safety?

Yes, no matter how they are regulated.

As long as they are properly regulated, they are fine.

No, I don’t see them as any sort of threat.

I have no strong opinion.

Charleston International Airport made the latest list of places where a drone encounter was reported. There were two such events, both described as minor.

Nonetheless, the airport takes the issue seriously.

Paul Campbell, the Charleston County Aviation Authority’s executive director, said a drone can pose a safety hazard around the airport.

“It’s an issue that’s going to continue to grow and become larger,” said Campbell, who also is a Republican state senator from Charleston. “Some of the drones, especially some of the larger drones, are metal and they can be sucked into a jet engine and cause an issue.”

In March, a helicopter pilot reported a drone about 2 miles east of the airport flying at about 100 feet. In July, the pilot of a six-passenger business jet traveling at 4,000 feet said there was an object that could have been a drone off his right wing about 16 miles southwest of the airport, the FAA report states.

In Greenville, a much closer brush with a drone was reported when a pilot told authorities that the remotely controlled aircraft was flying only 200 feet below his plane, which was traveling at an altitude of 7,500 feet.

Joe Bustos of Mount Pleasant, a pilot and flight instructor, said that if a drone were to hit the small Cessna that he flies, it would go right through the windshield. A drone sucked into a jet engine could prove catastrophic, he said.

“It’s something that I think is going to have to be regulated for the safety of airplanes and people on the ground,” he said.

Bustos said he has seen only one drone while flying, and that was in Florida.

Campbell said he favored restrictions on drone use to protect air safety but did not want to unduly limit them for recreation or business uses, such as aerial photography or surveying.

“I do think that the folks who want to use drones either commercially or privately need to be aware of air traffic control and keep them away from any area where you might encounter an aircraft,” he said.

On Friday night, the FAA released its list of pilot, air traffic controller and citizen reports of possible encounters with drones for the time period from November to August.

“Because pilot reports of unmanned aircraft have increased dramatically over the past year, the FAA wants to send a clear message that operating drones around airplanes and helicopters is dangerous and illegal,” the FAA said in a statement.

“Unauthorized operators may be subject to stiff fines and criminal charges, including possible jail time,” the agency said.

In addition to air travel concerns, the news has been buzzing with drone stories, ranging from people who shoot them to towns that ban them. The U.S. Forest Service has tallied 13 wildfires in which suspected drones interfered with firefighting aircraft this year — 11 since late June — up from four fires last year and only scattered incidents before. A California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection helicopter pilot told The Associated Press in a story earlier this month that he narrowly avoided a collision with a drone.

The FAA is evaluating more than 4,500 comments it has received on proposed rules for unmanned aircraft, or drones, weighing less than 55 pounds. The agency expects to complete its review and issue the new drone regulations early next year, said spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen.

In the meantime, more than 1,000 FAA Section 333 exemption requests have been approved for companies that want to use drones. Government and nonprofit organizations are not subject to the FAA rules for commercial drone use. Charleston County has a drone.

The FAA reported more than 500 drone encounters. Most involved pilots, but sometimes a concerned citizen contacted authorities about a drone hovering nearby. The pilot of an inbound airliner at New York’s LaGuardia Airport reported seeing a drone pass under the nose of the plane. The same thing happened to another commercial flight making its final runway approach in Boston, the FAA said.

One airline captain told authorities that a drone passed 100 feet above his aircraft, which was traveling at an altitude of 7,000 feet. Another said that a drone was 200 feet above during a 2-mile final approach at landing. A cargo plane reported a drone 60 feet away while the aircraft was in the midst of a climb to 11,000 feet.

The pilot of a small private plane reported a near-collision with a drone “orbiting” at 8,000 feet in altitude. In another instance, a pilot reported that a drone “passed across his windshield.” A medical helicopter service told authorities that a person flying a drone nearby kept it from taking off.

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