The classic Twilight Zone episode takes a 21st century turn. Yesterday, a man aboard an Alitalia flight preparing to land at JFK spied something disturbing outside his window: what appeared to be an unmanned vehicle in the sky. Updated with statement from FBI.
The sighting confirmed by the plane's pilot, who stated to air traffic controllers below, "We saw a drone, a drone aircraft." The Federal Aviation Aviation in the US says the plane landed without incident, but is investigating the claim. Why? It's bloody dangerous. Even a small UAV — we're not talking Predators, here — could cause a catastrophic collision with a plane ignorant of its position. And given the surprise of the pilot, we have to assume he was ignorant.
But there's a bigger question here: why was there a drone flying over Brooklyn to begin with? The NYPD has said on the record that it's "interested' in using drones to give it crime-seeking eyes in the sky, but no official program is in place. The legal framework for domestic drone operation isn't even solidified — though that hasn't stopped both government and private sector operators from flying them over the US.
It can't be stated enough: this will only become common up to the point that it's the norm.
We've reached out to the FAA for further comment.
Update: The FBI is hunting for the drone and its operator.
Update 2: The FAA replied to us with the following statement:
The FAA is investigating a report from the pilot of an international airline that he saw a small, unmanned or remote-controlled aircraft while on final approach to Runway 31 Right at John F. Kennedy International Airport at about 1:15 p.m. today. The sighting was approximately four to five miles southeast of the airport at an altitude of approximately 1,500 feet. The pilot did not take evasive action. The flight landed safely.
Update 3: A statement from the FBI indicates authorities don't know what the drone was or who's using it. They are asking the public for help:
On Monday, March, 4, 2013, at approximately 1:15 p.m., the pilot of Alitalia Flight #608 spotted a small, unmanned aircraft while on approach to John F. Kennedy International Airport. The Alitalia flight was roughly three miles from runway 31R when the incident occurred at an altitude of approximately 1,750 feet. The unmanned aircraft came within 200 feet of the Alitalia plane.
The FBI is investigating the incident and looking to identify and locate the aircraft and its operator. The unnamed aircraft was described as black in color and no more than three feet wide with four propellers.
"The FBI is asking anyone with information about the unmanned aircraft or the operator to contact us," said Special Agent in Charge John Giacalone. "Our paramount concern is the safety of aircraft passengers and crew."
Anyone with information is asked to call the FBI at 212-384-1000. Tipsters may remain anonymous.
This probably rules out something as pedestrian as the Parrot AR drone, which only has a remote range of 60m or so.