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Near misses between planes, drones on the increase

Drones may look like toys, but they can be dangerous. Experts say a drone could even take down a plane.

Action News Investigates found that the number of close calls between planes and drones is increasing in western Pennsylvania and around the country.

Pilot Howard Pierce, of Wexford, was flying his small plane over Butler last year when he came close to hitting a drone.

"It was probably within 5 feet of my wing," Pierce said. "It would have put either a giant dent in my left wing or done some serious damage to where my plane would just fall out of the sky."

Pierce said it "absolutely" could have been a life-or-death situation.

Federal Aviation Administration records show 1,171 near misses between drones and planes nationally in the first six months of 2019. In Western Pennsylvania, there was one near miss per month.

Some drones were spotted by jets landing at Pittsburgh International and Allegheny County airports. One near miss happened right over downtown Pittsburgh.

Pilot Tim Depaolis said he was doing an aerial tour, circling over downtown, when he "looked out the corner of my eye and I caught a glimpse of something shiny. It was right about my altitude." He said it was a drone.

The FAA does not allow drones to fly more than 400 feet above the ground without special permission. Depaolis said he was at 1,500 feet, and the drone was less than 200 feet below him.

"A drone, even a small drone, could easily bring down that plane if it hits the plane in the right spot," Depaolis said.

Dan Calig is president of Pittsburgh Drone Masters, a drone advocacy group. He said most drone operators follow the rules, and he is pushing for less regulation of drones.

Calig said he is not concerned about the possibility of a plane striking a drone. But he is aware of the potential for danger, so he is pushing drone users to get better educated before they fly.

"You're entering the national air space. It's not something we take lightly," Calig said. "Someone could go into Best Buy, get a drone and take it off in their backyard and be in trouble fairly quickly."

The FAA is responsible for taking action against drone users who break the rules. But Action News Investigates learned the FAA fined only eight drone users nationwide in the past three years.

A top FAA official admitted the agency needs to do more.

"We know we're not moving at the fastest pace possible. We know there needs to be more guidance out there,” said John Dermody, the FAA's safety director.

A Pittsburgh airport official also said more needs to be done to protect the flying public from drones.

"We have wildlife we use to keep birds away, as far as prevention goes, so we have to look at the same thing for drones. They just cannot be in airspace," said Vince Gastgeb, government relations director for the Allegheny County Airport Authority.

The lack of government action is disturbing to local pilots who have had close encounters with drones.

"It's very scary, to be honest," Depaolis said.

"People need to get caught," Pierce said. Asked why, he said, "Because people will die."

The Pittsburgh Drone Masters are talking with Department of Homeland Security officials about a volunteer drone defense system at Pittsburgh International Airport. If a rogue drone is spotted near the airport, Calig said local drone users would be called out. They would have one of their drones crash into the rogue drone, knocking it out of the sky.


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