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Too close for comfort: Drones pose safety threat to planes in protected airspace

Posted at 3:18 PM, Aug 24, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-21 16:56:22-05

There are many new amateur pilots taking to the skies, but instead of planes, they're flying drones. Some drone pilots are taking big risks with your safety by breaching protected airspace.

Chief Investigator Darcy Spears found out just how close drones are flying to McCarran and other major airports across the county and why we should all be concerned.

Shocking video discovered on social media in February shows the danger drones pose to commercial airplanes. It shows just how close a drone was flying to an incoming Frontier Airlines flight landing at McCarran. 

Under federal law, operating a drone within five miles of an airport without permission is a crime. The Henderson Police made contact with the man who posted the video. He admitted it was his camera but refused to help police identify the drone operator. The district attorney didn't press charges, claiming the law is unclear about which point at the airport is used to take the official five-mile measurement.

Last September a drone injured a woman when it crashed a pool party at Palms Place. The Palms is only about 2.5 miles from McCarran, meaning it's in protected airspace. 

The FAA's five-mile rule covers more of the city than you might think. It's a radius that goes from:

  • Rainbow on the west
  • Oakey on the north
  • Mountain Vista on the east
  • Cactus on the south

There's also a five-mile bubble around the Henderson and North Las Vegas airports. The airspace around Nellis Air Force Base is restricted also.

So how often are drones flying in violation of the rules? FAA data from last year shows 31 drone sightings in or near restricted Nevada airspace. Most of those were from pilots in the Las Vegas area.  This year that number is 27 as of the end of June, which means the final yearly total could be double what was reported in 2017.

The pilot of Southwest flight 4437 coming into Milwaukee encountered a drone on May 27th of last year

"If you have a large commercial aircraft at such a high speed, by the time the aircraft sees you, it would be too late.” That’s according to professor Javid Bayandor, an aerospace engineer who studies drone strikes at the CRASH Lab located in the University at Buffalo in New York.

His simulations show what a drone would do to a jet engine. In this one, an eight-pound drone would tear a jet engine to shreds. The damage done in less than a second.


So what does the FAA do to fight the risk? In most cases they call local police. In a statement the FAA said that's as far as they can go, "The FAA does not impose criminal penalties. That's a question for law enforcement."

The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department told us, "These calls are difficult to investigate because by the time they arrive, the aircraft or the operator are gone."

Henderson Police took 3 calls for drones this year including the Frontier video. The second call was unfounded. On the third call the drone was gone by the time officers arrived. 

North Las Vegas police told us they haven't had any drone calls.

But the Government Accountability Office determined that the FAA needs to do more. It released a study on drones with a clear warning in the title: "FAA Should Improve Its Management of Safety Risks."

Drone safety is such a new problem it appears there's not much to recommend except telling the FAA to work on collecting more reliable data and evaluate technology to detect drones. To put the problem into perspective, from more than 2000 drone reports called in last year, only 19 resulted in the pilot being tracked down and fined. In Nevada, the FAA took action against a drone operator in 2016 for flying over a music festival in Lake Tahoe.  


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