COLUMBIA — From half a mile away, it's hard to see the descending airplane.
It's been cloudy all morning. Rain has been falling off and on since the previous afternoon.
The Bombardier CRJ700 is small as airliners go, but at 106 feet long and with a maximum takeoff weight in excess of 72,000 pounds, it's larger than most of the private aircraft that frequent Columbia Regional Airport. But the low-lying clouds make it impossible to see, even with its landing lights on.
Four hundred feet above the ground, the airliner breaks through the clouds. Less than a minute later, its wheels hit the tarmac.
If a drone had been in the airliner's path, Air Traffic Manager LeRoy Welch said it would have been too late.
"(The aircraft) is so big that it takes so much to turn it. They cannot evade a probable strike. It's almost impossible," he said.
When President Donald Trump signed the FAA Reauthorization Act in December, the law included new regulations for recreational drone pilots. All recreational drones will need to be registered with the FAA. Anyone who wants to fly for recreational purposes will need to pass an aeronautical knowledge test and have proof they have done so if an aviation official asks them for it. The new law requires recreational pilots to follow the same airspace rules commercial drone pilots and conventional aircraft pilots do. In the controlled airspace near airports, drone pilots must first get clearance from the control tower to fly their aircraft. Welch said this usually involves calling the tower's phone and explaining your flight plan to the on-duty controller. In unrestricted airspace, which in mid-Missouri accounts for almost all of the airspace away from the Columbia and Jefferson City airports, no permission is needed.
Frequent low-level guests in unrestricted airspace include cropdusters and medical helicopters. Kyle Rehagen, the senior lead pilot for University Hospital's Staff for Life helicopter fleet, said the new rules change very little for EMS helicopters. He said pilots in unrestricted airspace don't have the luxury of knowing about everything that's in the air, as they do in controlled airspace. He said drones pose a particularly serious risk for rotarcraft because of the number of exposed moving parts.
"If it hits any of those and causes any damage whatsoever, it's going to change the characteristics of the flight," he said.
Rehagen said he hasn't had any problems with drones so far. He said the rule for any aircraft is "see and avoid," meaning pilots give the right of way to everything else in the sky. Rehagen said every drone pilot should keep their eyes and ears open and yield to any other aircraft. He said every drone pilot should register their aircraft and communicate as much as they can about their intended flight.
According to the FAA, it's illegal to fly a drone 400 feet or more above the ground. Welch said that altitude puts drones in the path of aircraft on their takeoff and landing runs, when they are most vulnerable. In December, someone flew a drone too close to London's Gatwick Airport, leading to two days of flight cancellations that affected roughly 150,000 people at the height of the Christmas travel season. Welch said pilots try to keep their landing runs as straight as possible. Any sudden course correction means a pilot will have to go around. Moreover, he said some aircraft land at speeds of 200 miles per hour or more. When combined with the fact that larger aircraft are more difficult to maneuver, he said the sudden appearance of a drone leaves a pilot with few options.
Welch said the airspace within five miles of Columbia Regional Airport is controlled airspace. He said that means his air traffic controllers are responsible for everything that flies within a five-mile radius. The same holds true of the area around Jefferson City Memorial Airport. Larger airports have larger and more complex areas of controlled airspace.
"That means if there's a baseball out there, it's yours," he said. "We don't care about a baseball, but that gives you an idea what the airspace is as far as control goes."
Welch said if a drone hits an airplane, it's automatically a federal matter. The National Transportation Safety Board investigates all incidents involving aircraft, no matter how minor. He said any fault or punishment would stem from the NTSB's conclusions.
Welch said recreational drone pilots should make sure they read and understand the owner's manuals that come with their aircraft. If parents bought a drone for their children, he said they should read the materials with their children and fly with them until good flying habits are established.
FAA officials turned down a request for comment for this story because they have not yet written the rules that will govern the knowledge and registration requirements spelled out in the FAA Reauthorization Act. They said the government shutdown delayed that process.
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