Plane departing Heathrow airport haunted by mysterious flying object

There have been several incidents of near-misses in the UK in the past few months

Plane departing Heathrow airport haunted by mysterious flying object
An Oman Air plane lands at the Heathrow airport. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Maarten Visser

A mysterious "bright red object" nearly hit an Airbus A321 departing the London Heathrow Airport, coming within 20 feet of the aircraft.   

On October 16, the A321 had an uneventful takeoff. The pilot had been warned about the presence of a drone towards the east of the airfield, but once the plane had attained an altitude of 3,000 feet, and was taking a right turn, the object was seen passing down the left-hand side of the aircraft about 20 feet off the left wing, Simpleflying reported. The air traffic control (ATC) was informed. 

According to the UK Airprox Board (UKAB), owing to the speed of passing, it could not be determined whether the object was a helium balloon or a drone. However, the UKAB noted that a "definite risk" of collision had existed and it was only by sheer luck that the plane went unscathed. 

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"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," the UKAB said. It classified the incident as falling under the highest-risk 'A' category. 

Simpleflying pointed out that if the object was indeed a drone, then it was flying seven-and-a-half times higher than the limit permissible in the UK. 

The UKAB is the body tasked with investigating airprox or air proximity incidents in the UK and is funded equally by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and Military Aviation Authority (MAA). According to the CAA website, "An airprox is defined as 'a situation in which, in the opinion of a pilot or air traffic services personnel, the distance between aircraft, as well as their relative positions and speed, have been such that the safety of the aircraft involved may have been compromised.'" 

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This was not the first instance of a near-miss in the UK in the past few months. On September 1, an unidentified object appeared to move "head-on" towards a Boeing B737 preparing to land at the Leeds Airport. Pilots claimed that the bright object came within 10 feet of the aircraft. 

That incident had also been classified as Category A by the UKAB, which said that the object appeared all of a sudden and there was no time to react for the pilots. The local police had warned about the presence of flying lanterns in the area, but the pilots did not think that the object was a flying lantern.

Then on September 4, an approximately 50-cm-long drone was loitering at 8,000 feet -- 20 times higher than the legal limit for drones in the UK -- around the Manchester airport. The drone narrowly missed the nose of an Airbus A320.

There have been frequent drone disruptions around airports in the UK. There were seven Category A incidents in just two months in 2019, Simpleflying reported. In 2019, low-cost carrier easyJet said that it had lost over £15 million as a result of drone disturbances around the Gatwick Airport. Over the past decade, there has been more than a 3,000% increase in incidents involving aircraft and drones. 

According to the UK law, it is illegal to fly a drone within three miles (4.8 km) of an airport or at an altitude exceeding 400 feet.

(Cover image courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Maarten Visser)