Pilots have expressed serious concern after a drone narrowly missed hitting an Air New Zealand A320 with 166 passengers aboard in controlled airspace above Christchurch. Air New Zealand says a trend of “reckless” drone use is emerging.
The incident was technically a “near miss”. The New Zealand Air Line Pilots’ Association (NZALPA), which represents 2500 pilots and air traffic controllers, said it was “very worried” over the incident. It was relieved that no-one was injured and that no damage had occurred.
The pilot of the Air New Zealand A320 flying from Christchurch to Auckland reported seeing the “sizeable” red-coloured drone pass close to the aircraft at an altitude of 6000 feet (1800 metres) over Kaiapoi, north of Christchurch, on Friday evening.
That is extremely high for a drone, which are pilotless and controlled from the ground. Pilots say it raises significant safety concerns.
Director of New Zealand’s Civil Aviation Authority, Graeme Harris, said the drone should have been nowhere near the jet. Investigations are underway.
New Zealand operators of drones, which are typically used for filming or other such work, say they can think of no reason why anyone would want to fly a drone at such an altitude – over one and a half kilometres in the sky. It would stretch battery power and was too high for filming.
In a statement, Air New Zealand said a trend of “reckless” drone use was emerging.
“What our pilot believed to be a drone was being operated in and around the flight path but was fortunately spotted by our pilots who ensured the aircraft avoided it,” Captain David Morgan said.
Under aviation rules in New Zealand, drones must fly no higher than 400 feet (120 metres) unless certain conditions are met. Craft must weigh less than 25 kilograms and can only be flown during daylight hours.
Air traffic controllers say managing drone activity adds to their workload, putting controllers and pilots in “stressful and potentially harmful” situations.
They are calling for more restrictions on drones.
Written by Peter Needham