Earlier this month, it was reported that an unwelcome aviation first had finally occurred: A British Airways jet on final approach into London’s Heathrow Airport hit a small unmanned aircraft system, commonly known as a drone. Regulation-happy bureaucrats and headline-seeking media organizations seized the report as proof that drones are as dangerous to our skies as they would have people believe.
But it seems those early reports got it wrong. Last week, British officials concluded that the Airbus A320 involved in the incident had likely not hit a drone after all. In fact, it is entirely possible that what the pilot reported to be a quadcopter was just a plastic bag drifting in the wind.
How could a trained pilot misidentify a bit of litter as a consumer drone? It’s a mistake that is quite easy to make when you consider the multitude of things competing for a pilot’s attention as he prepares to land a jetliner, and the fact that at the relative speed of a few hundred miles per hour, drones may be visible for only a few seconds before the plane zips past them.