Coming: A New Breed of Aviation Accident

August 15, 2012

The last US aviation accident involving a large jetliner occurred in November 2001. When an American Airlines A300 crashed shortly after takeoff from New York’s Kennedy Airport in November 2001, 265 people died. (This state-of-the-art aircraft was equipped with a fly-by-wire system that was designed to prevent the pilots from making any control inputs that would jeopardize the safety of the flight. The pilot managed to over-modulate rudder inputs and snap off the entire vertical stabilizer. But that’s another story).

So we’ve gone over a decade without a fatal accident involving a US heavy transport aircraft. That’s about to change.

A frightening array of organizations (DHS, FBI, ATF, DEA, Fedex, military, local cops, real estate developers, news media, paparazzi, oil and mineral explorers, pizza shops [seriously], etc.) are pressing the federal government to open US skies to drones. Drones are unmanned aircraft weighing anywhere from a few ounces to a few tons that can linger for hours or days watching everything that’s happening beneath them. Some drones are robots flying programmed routes; others are operated by ‘pilots’ on the ground who may be thousands of miles from the drone(s) they are controlling.

Never mind the risks drones pose to your privacy. Your Fourth Amendment rights pretty much died in 2001 when President Bush signed the Patriot Act. President Obama renewed and ‘strengthened’ the Patriot Act in 2011.

Now, in their never-ending quest to make America safe for democracy, the president and Congress have directed the Federal Aviation Administration [FAA] to integrate drones into US airspace by September of 2015. Acting FAA Administrator Michael Huerta recently told an industry group (read: guys who sell drones) that he is “very, very optimistic we will get there.” No doubt, Mr. Huerta has been smoking some of the weed for which those drones will be searching.

There are around 40,000 commercial flights daily in the US plus tens of thousands of private (general aviation) and military flights. To its credit, the FAA has done a good job of keeping these planes from flying into each other. A corps of air traffic controllers, on-board collision avoidance technology, ground-based radars, radios, and heavy information processing generally work well.

But underlying all of our sophisticated air traffic control technology is the principle of ‘see and avoid.’ Pilots and the FAA rely on this principle as the final safeguard against disasters in the sky. Sometimes all that technology just doesn’t work. Every day brings multiple incidents in which pilots must take action to avoid collisions in the sky. Pilots joke that they have strong motivation to keep their heads on a swivel because, in the event of a screw-up, they will be “the first to arrive at the scene of the accident.”

What about drones? No pilot; nobody looking out the window; nobody on board with a strong survival instinct. Oh, sure, drones can be equipped with cameras, radars, GPS, transponders—all sorts of technological goodies that will reduce the chances of a collision. But the chances for collision will still be there. There will be no one in the cockpit to react quickly and properly to that little black dot in the sky that is looming larger every second.

The FAA estimates there will 30,000 drones loitering in the skies of America by 2020. It is only a matter of time before one of them scatters bodies, luggage, and iPhones all over downtown Flat Rock.