On June 25, 2018, one of Virgin Atlantic’s Boeing 787-9s came very close to a tragedy when upon its approach to London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR) a drone was spotted passing the plane within just 10 feet. Believed to be one of the closest near-misses between a drone and a commercial aircraft to occur in the UK, the incident has raised concerns with British air safety authorities, prompting many to call for tighter drone laws despite newly introduced restrictions.

According to a September 12, 2018, report from the UK Airprox Board, Flight VS301 en route from Delhi (India) was performing its descent over South London when at 3,200 feet (975 meters) a “drone-like object” was seen to pass just below the Dreamliner’s right wing. It is estimated that the drone avoided impact with the aircraft’s engine by just 10 feet (3 meters).

“The drone was being flown beyond VLOS [Visual Line of Sight] limits and on an airfield approach path such that it was endangering other aircraft at that altitude and position. The Board agreed that the incident was therefore best described as the drone was flown into conflict with the B787,” the report states.

Virgin Atlantic said flight crew immediately reported the incident to air traffic control (ATC) in June 2018,  British online newspaper The Independent informs. The B787 was carrying 264 passengers on board.

According to Airprox Board’s assessment, the B787 pilot’s 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 near-miss was thus attributed the highest level of risk (equivalent to ICAO risk severity “A” or „catastrophic”). Civil Aviation Authority of UK on its part described the Dreamliner’s encounter as among the closest times a drone has come to striking a commercial aircraft in the country.

Deciphering new regulations

Taking a closer look at the account of the event, today, the drone’s pilot would have broken the law by climbing to around 3,200ft – the altitude of the B787 at the time of the near-collision – as it is eight times the height allowed by current law.

New regulations made by an amendment to the Air Navigation Order 2016 and introduced by the UK Department for Transport on July 30, 2018, restrict all drones from flying above 400ft (120m) as well as within one kilometer of airport or airfield boundaries. These new laws were first announced on May 30, 2018.

Further regulations, which are set to come into effect on November 30, 2019, will also require operators of drones weighing 250 grams or more to register with the CAA and take online safety tests.

But following the news of Virgin Atlantic’s near-collision, the British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) urged the UK government to implement its drone education and registration program – the requirement for drone owners to register with the CAA and take online safety tests – as soon as possible.

“The drone was being flown beyond visual line of sight and in conflict with aircraft approaching Heathrow Airport. That’s why we need the registration and education process in force sooner rather than later, so people flouting the law can be caught and prosecuted,” BALPA Head of Flight safety, Rob Hunter, said in an official statement released by the association on October 23, 2018.

BALPA also wants to see the law designate a larger no-fly zone – five kilometers – around airports.  “We need to ensure people flying drones take responsibility for their actions and do so responsibly with the knowledge that if they endanger an aircraft they could face jail,” Hunter added.

In the wake of the June 2018 incident, Virgin Atlantic has also joined the outcry regarding stricter drone laws around airports: “It's vital that action is taken to regulate the use of drones near airports, and we urge the government to consider further proposals,” a spokesman for the airline was quoted as saying by The Independent.

In 2017, the UK saw a total of 93 reported drone incidents with aircraft.