Drone sightings at Arizona airports on the rise

Photo by anoldent | Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

As the governor and firefighting officials warn the public about drones causing issues for wildfire fighting, airports in Arizona have been dealing with a large increase in drone incidents. 

From 2014 to 2015, pilots flying in Arizona reported 25 incidents of drones coming close to their aircraft. In the 9 months between October 2018 and June 2019, there have been 61 incidents.

One of the incidents caused an airplane to have to take evasive action to avoid colliding with a drone. 

In March, a single-engine Cessna was inbound to the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport when a white drone with a blue stripe appeared in-front of it at 2,400 feet. The pilot had to make a “hard left to avoid” the drone. 

More than 143,000 people have earned drone pilot certificates and there are more than 1.4 million drones in the Federal Aviation Administration drone registry, according to FAA spokesman Ian Gregor. 

Gregor said that the certificate program aids in helping educate drone pilots on how to operate their drones safely. 

“We also do not hesitate to take enforcement action against drone pilots for willful or egregious violations of the regulations,” Gregor said. 

Researchers at the University of Dayton last year conducted one of the first ever tests of what a drone impacting an airplane would look like and found that, unlike bird strikes, the drone penetrated deeper into the aircraft upon hitting it. 

Close encounters of the drone kind

The drone sightings reported in the FAA data vary in the type of incident, size of drone and location.

One pilot reported a near mid-air collision, or NMAC for short, with a drone while on approach to the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport in November. 

The twin-engine PA44 reported an NMAC with a quadcopter drone at 2,100 feet. The pilot didn’t need to take any evasive action. 

In another incident, it appears a drone was photographing an ASU swim meet. 

“Pilot said he saw the drone 200 feet below him in the area of Arizona State Univ.,” the report of a jetliner pilot to the FAA says. “He also said it was near what looked like a swim meet. Tempe PD notified.” 

Large city airports are not the only places that are having drone sightings. 

In Benson, a single-engine Cessna was about to enter into its final approach pattern for landing. These patterns are usually determined by the airport and the pilot was on a practice approach. 

While at 6,500 feet, the pilot called air traffic control to tell them he was going to terminate his practice approach due to a drone operating within the same area of the approach pattern. The FAA found there were no notifications about drone activity in that area. Drone operators are required to report to the FAA when flying in certain areas or at certain altitudes.  

In May 2019, a drone even interfered with firefighting in Arizona. 

A pilot in a Bureau of Land Management plane providing support to firefighters called the FAA to report a drone interfering with their operations. 

“The drone interferred [sic] with ground firefighting crews attempting to fight the fire,” the report states. Salt River Police were able to make contact with the operator in this incident, something that doesn’t always happen. 

Some of the drone reports sound like something out of a UFO report. 

In Tucson, a pilot reported an “egg shaped” drone at 4,500 feet off the right side of their aircraft. 

In another, a pilot reported a drone 6 feet in size and red. The Arizona Mirror attempted to determine what kind of drone this would be to no avail. 

Fixed wing aircraft are not the only craft encountering drones.

A helicopter flying in the Grand Canyon reported a drone or balloon “dangling two objects over the highway.” The drone or balloon wasn’t interfering with flight paths, but the helicopter pilot reported the odd activity anyway. 

Drones are also reaching significant altitudes. 

There are several instances of drones being reported at 12,500 feet either passing below an aircraft or just under it, according to the FAA data. 

An Airbus even reported a drone within 100 feet of them while at 15,000 feet on approach to Phoenix.

Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joins the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. Jerod has also won awards for his documentary films which have covered issues such as religious tolerance and surveillance technology used by police. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.


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