Airliners vs. Drones: Calm Down.


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Much ado has been produced by the media about the hazards of drones flying in proximity to airliners, but I’m happy to report: it’s much ado about nothing.

The hazard presented by unwanted objects in an aircraft’s flight path is nothing new. In fact, each year hundreds of bird strikes are dutifully and without fanfare reported by airline pilots as is required by law.

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What’s new is the opportunity for media and aviation “pundits” to claim more screaming headlines by overstating the drone hazard. First, consider the typical, average weight of the plentiful waterfowl populating the bird sanctuaries neighboring JFK, LGA, ORD, DFW, SEA, PDX, LAX, SAN, DCA, SFO, BOS and most Florida airports to name but a few. The weight varies from the 10-13 pound goose to the heavier seabirds like pelican which can weigh up to 30 pounds.

Although the the media and some wannabe aviation pundits claim there are “drones of 50-60 pounds,” the fact is, the new, popular hobbyist drones are marvels of lightweight miniaturization, weighing a fraction of that.

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Now, consider the exposure: while the new hobbyist drones begin to enjoy an increasing level of retail sales, the bird hazard numbers literally in the millions. By sheer numbers alone, bird conflicts and even bird strikes dwarf the number of drone “sightings” by airliners, but they’re simply no longer news.

Plainly stated, the traveling public–and thus the media–understand the exposure, accept it, and like the National Highway Traffic Safety traffic death toll, ignore it.

Trundle out the “new menace” of drones and heads turn, headlines accrue, news ratings uptick, and those who know little about jetliners begin to smell fear.

So let’s even go beyond the hazard and foresee and actual impact with a drone. I once flew from Pittsburgh to DFW with duck guts splattered all over my cockpit windscreen after hitting what maintenance technicians estimated to be a ten pound duck. There were two primary consequences I had to deal with.

What are the chances of encountering a drone? A duck?

What are the chances of encountering a drone? A duck?

First, I had to look through duck guts for two and a half hours. They partially slid off, but most froze onto the window at altitude and stayed. Second, the crew meal enroute was less appetizing with the backdrop of frozen duck guts. That’s it.

None of the birds went into either engine. No aircraft systems were affected. Nobody (besides Pittsburgh tower) knew until after landing when we filed the required reports.

This is a pretty good predictor of what might happen if the rare, statistically minute chance of a drone-aircraft collision were to occur: likely, nada.

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Yes, there always the potential for engine damage when a “bird,” man made or real, is ingested by an engine. Nonetheless, of all the birds–man made or real–populating the skies around every major airport, drones are a minuscule fraction of the whole group that air travelers sensibly overlook day to day.

So why not focus on that reality rather than the shrieking media and aviation “experts” offering unlikely and often, absurd “what ifs?”

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The answer is, the latter sells news, while the former undercuts the self-appointed aviation experts in and out of the media.

So the choice is yours. You can embrace the misguided drone hysteria served up by the news and “experts,” or apply the same logic you do to every daily hazard–including the drive to the airport (over 32,000 traffic deaths in 2014)–which is: drive carefully, and don’t sweat the small stuff.

Anything else is much ado about nothing.

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50 Responses to “Airliners vs. Drones: Calm Down.”

  1. Thank you for some sanity. So tired of all the doom and gloom by headline seeking “experts” and media with zero understanding of the real risks.

  2. Good afternoon Captain. Thank you for this interesting and informative perspective. I wonder if you might be able to comment further regarding the potential interactions between drones and firefighting aircraft. I was watching the evening news several days ago and they were talking about the wildfires out west. They had video of the DC-10 firefighting tanker, and audio from the crew who said they had to abort the mission because there was a drone (or drones) nearby. I’m certain this dramatic video and audio have contributed to the growing concern about drones. What are your thoughts on that? Thanks again.

    • I can certainly understand the concern over firefighting aircraft and drones, but I believe the risk to airliners has been overblown by the media and aviation “experts.”

    • I’m guessing most birds make every effort to get out of the way, whereas drones are often deliberately placed in high risk areas such as the scenes of accidents, fires and explosions. I also think a drone would do a lot more damage to anything it hits, versus a bird of identical weight due to it’s very strong structure (they are designed not not break even in high speed accidents). All drones also contain large lithium batteries and also blocks of metal (motor casings, windings and magnets). Birds are mainly just squishy meat. I know what I’d prefer to be hit by 🙂 I’d be interested to see what happens if you throw a typical hobby drone like the popular DJI Phantom (which weighs 1.3KG / 3lbs) into a jet engine at 200mph.

      • Unless drones start flying in flocks, I doubt worst case (engine ingestion) would result in anything catastrophic: how many times every month do airliners experience an engine failure, and how many have other than a safe landing afterward?

  3. Chris, last year you refrained from commenting about the disappearing Malayasian airplane. You said you were waiting for the authorities to offer more insight before you’d comment. Aside from a bad career move on your part, what’s preventing you from commenting now? Do you have your own opinion on how a plane can just vanish? Is that even possible?
    I respect your thoughtfulness and I’d love to hear your honest appraisal.
    And thank you for your all your posts!

  4. Cedarglen Says:

    Thank you, Chris. I could not agree more.
    Many years ago while learning to ride a motorcycle, I was told, “Right of way by Weight (Mass),” meaning the smaller of the two objects will lose the contest. In the case of the airliner vs. the drone, the only real difference may be a slightly increased ‘crunch factor.’ Feathered birds have brought down transport-class aircraft before and will do so again. When a drone eventually brings one down, just watch the fire storm! The difference? At least in theory, drone can be regulated or banned (good ducking luck!) and birds cannot.
    As for news media, and their ill-informed, usually idiotic reporting of ‘aviation-related’ events, that is an affliction that I do not suffer: for longer than you’ve been driving from seat 0A, I’ve not owned a television set.
    Thank you again for a great post, injecting a little sanity when it is needed. – Craig
    P.S. Sometimes the testing and evaluation also leaves a lot to be desired. You must remember the early days of testing turbine engines’ ability to withstand bird damage using the “Chicken Canon.” The engines failed. Why? The ‘turkeys’ were using frozen chickens! Regards, -C.

  5. I tell you, the first person to run a ‘drone cannon’ experiment and post the footage on YouTube will get a zillion views AND their 15 seconds of fame. (Yes, I meant to write ‘seconds’.) And that, as you so rightly say, will be the fullest extent of the impact.

  6. peggywillenberg Says:

    I hope this is not inappropriate, but the meteorological component of this story is fascinating to me. This is in regard to the plane severely damaged by hail recently. You have stated before how well your on-board radar serves you, and in looking at this line merger (in hindsight, of course) I would think the pilot in question might have been reluctant to fly between these two storms. I am curious as to your take–not “should he?” but “would you?” Thanks, your meteorologist fan Peggy http://www.wunderground.com/blog/stuostro/comment.html?entrynum=33&utm_content=buffer88f92&utm_medium=social&utm_source=plus.google.com&utm_campaign=buffer

    • Peggy, I’d need the missing piece of the puzzle: what did they see in the cockpit. Otherwise, anything I’d conclude would be just speculation. What I do count on though, is that eventually the facts will be studied by all airlines and finally, the line swine pilot like me will get a very valuable “here’s how to not fall into this trap” training module from my airline.

      • peggywillenberg Says:

        Thank you, that’s a good way to look at it. Nobody was hurt and others will learn from the experience, so hopefully it will not be repeated.

  7. Thank you for experienced point of view. This sentence is the most wise of all (not only when it comes to drones): “The answer is, the latter sells news, while the former undercuts the self-appointed aviation experts in and out of the media.” I think every important issue highlighted by current media deserves some “comment” written from the perspective which does not sell the news, but it´s more accurate.

  8. Some bird do little to no damage and some birds cause major damage…but they are birds. People should know better than to fly near the airport!

  9. Interesting perspective. Birds are not however made of carbon fibre and carrying 500g’s to – 2kg of lithium polymer battery cells.

    I suspect turbulence would deflect a small Quadcopter before it got anywhere near being ingested.

    Somebody somewhere must have done some tests on this?

  10. Great article! I think many of us wondered how much damage can a drone do to a plane. It sounds very unlikely a drone can bring down a plane. My concern was if a drone can damage a plane, why not ban drones since it would mean one less object for a landing plane to hit. Obliviously, we cannot control the path of flying birds. Thanks again for your perspective.

    • Why don’t we ban cellphones? Tons of people get killed every year by people texting while driving. It would mean thousands of lives saved every year. Banning things is never the correct answer. In a few years drones will be just as common as cellphones and everyone will calm down.

  11. What a breath of fresh air. I have been actively trying to educate the public as to the *true* level of risk associated with small recreational drone activities for quite some time now – but the mainstream media much prefers “clickbait” headlines such as “near miss” “hundreds of lives at risk” etc, etc.

    Thanks for giving us an informed perspective on the FACTS, rather than the sensationalist rants of uninformed media and (on all too many occasions) regulators and special-interest groups with their own agendas.

  12. As always, a very interesting read. I am curious on the issue of ground lasers temporarily blinding pilots on approach. As a layperson, my only “take” on this is what I read/see in the press. Has this similarly been overblown, or are lasers a different and more serious threat? Thank you,

  13. So you’re not advocating some sort of cow catcher type device on the nose? (giggles)
    Enjoyed reading your take

  14. […] Manno says there are so many bird strikes each year that, by contrast to the rare but more interesting drone sightings, they “are simply no longer news,” adding: “Plainly stated, the travelling public – and thus the media – understand the exposure, accept it, and like the National Highway Traffic Safety death toll, ignore it.” […]

  15. This definitely makes me feel better…seeing that I am not thrilled about airplanes in general 🙂

  16. This may be true for airliners, but not all of us fly multi-engine jets at altitudes above drone operations. In my home town, Seattle, we have a tremendous amount of GA traffic operating below 1500′ AGL year round. The idea of a 5 pound hunk of plastic and metal coming through my window at 130kts. and hitting me in the face is a real concern.

  17. […] (apparent) pilot’s view on the subject and, if you were upset by other things you’ve heard or read, do as he says, “Calm […]

  18. One of the key bits of technology that will help protect full-sized aviation from drones (and v/v) is effective “sense and avoid” (SAA).

    I am a long-time electronics engineer and designer with an enviable record of innovation who has also flown RC models (now sometimes referred to as “drones”) for almost 50 years and I have been working on an SAA system which is showing great promise.

    Sadly, due solely to the politics which infest our aviation and model-flying communities, I have been told that to continue the development of this system could result in action against me by the CAA — our version of the FAA. This is despite the fact that my current level of testing involves no flying and is solely ground-based.

    I trust that the US scene isn’t so utterly corrupted by politics and “networks” of influential people who subvert the goal of improving the safety of the national airspace.

  19. […] the other hand, commercial airline captain Chris Manno said on his JetHead blog that pilots’ fear of drones is “much ado about nothing.” He said that there are […]

  20. […] the other hand, commercial airline captain Chris Manno said on his JetHead blog that pilots’ fear of drones is “much ado about nothing.” He said that there are […]

  21. […] the other hand, commercial airline captain Chris Manno said on his JetHead blog that pilots’ fear of drones is “much ado about nothing.” He said that there are […]

  22. […] a other hand, blurb airline captain Chris Manno said on his JetHead blog that pilots’ fear of drones is “much function about nothing.” He pronounced that […]

  23. […] bir havayolu şirketinde çalışan kaptan pilot Dr. Chris Manno ise bu söylentilerle ilgili blogunda bir yazı yayınladı. İşte kaptan pilot Dr. Chris Manno’nun dronelar ve uçaklarla ilgili […]

  24. […] Manno says there are so many bird strikes each year that, by contrast to the rare but more interesting drone sightings, they “are simply no longer news,” adding: “Plainly stated, the travelling public – and thus the media – understand the exposure, accept it, and like the National Highway Traffic Safety death toll, ignore it.” […]

  25. Hi Chris,
    I get to this article following a reposting on a famous magazine about drones that clearly was minimizing the problem of a drone encounter.
    I am very happy that you are more worried about a birdstrike than a drone strike, probably we should suggest this to media as well or may be not.
    I guess that in your personal risk assessment you evaluated that-
    – the statistics published only refer to seen and reported drones and, as you know for sure, the actual airprox with a drone are probably much more
    – an aircraft is certified with extensive test to impact a bird, are there any similar test with a drone that can weight between 10 gr to 25kgs.
    – a bird, unless following a very bad navigational error, tries to avoid an impact with an aircraft, can we say the same for a drone flown deliberately violating a law and in close proximity of an airport where supposedly aircraft are landing or taking off?
    – as you know, bird can carry light things, letters in case of pigeon. Drone, can carry from a brick to some other funny things..
    – I don’t remember that an airport has been ever closed for a single bird flying around, can we say the same for some events recently happened with drones?
    – FAA probably, and hopefully, is concerned, because the frequency of these airprox significantly increased, so a basic risk assessment should suggest that the Authority must to do something, soon. Easa in EU is simply waiting to copy and paste and change logo, as always.
    – around the world, there are some interesting people with interesting ideas that can do some funny (not in a nice way) things. Some stupid guys target aircrafts with lasers already, some others stole a 767 to do something different. Now they don’t even need to go to an American flight school to get similar result.
    So again, I am happy that you are not concerned and at the same time annoyed that media, as always when talking about aviation, try to scare people with sensationalistic news. Said this, I would not minimize the problem to less than a simple birdstrike or assume the risk because you already drove to the airport in a car. I am extremely concerned for me and my colleagues and I hope that Faa and finally Easa will take some serious action, very soon.

    A colleague

  26. […] Manno says there are so many bird strikes each year that, by contrast to the rare but more interesting drone sightings, they “are simply no longer news,” adding: “Plainly stated, the travelling public – and thus the media – understand the exposure, accept it, and like the National Highway Traffic Safety death toll, ignore it.” […]

  27. Nick as much as I would like to argue your point I would redirect yourself to the certified pilot that just made the previous statement which you seem to not want to digest. You are not unlike many others whom want vigorously to weigh in with your opinion, but it’s mute! Hipe and jive are all that is really going on here. If you are a multimillion dollar company that wants to thin the air of all other competitive “Drones” and also just want the airspace to yourself then you create an environment of fear that is designed with a goal,,,,,scare,,pay off,,,whatever works best for your company,,,any politician that will guarantee you compliance requirements by the public that they (the public) can’t afford accept those companies with deep pockets and presto only America’s 2% can afford to use “ALL OF OURS” National Airspace for fun or most importantly,,,,,wait!!,,,,profitability.
    Here’s one last thought for you. Are you aware of what we used to call in the 60’s as “MAD” during the cold war? If you are younger you probably are not, but it stands for “Mutually assured destruction”. This theory is true now. What makes the government so nervous is not about an imminent threat but rather an imminent “Ability” to keep an eye on them. For someone who wants to keep their affairs and activities secret,,,well that would be harder if I can pop up behind this hill and see what you are doing,,,,wouldn’t it? It goes much deeper than that,,,but if intelligent you should be getting there by now. More about a market share rather than any safety concerns. Unfortunately I’ve seen this trail being cut before back in the seventies with ultralight aircraft,,,I think we all know where that went.

  28. […] Airliner vs Drone…much ado about nothing […]

  29. […] every pilot believes drone strikes are a real problem. For example, airline captain Chris Manno believes they’re “much ado about nothing.” He says there are hundreds of bird strikes […]

  30. […] every pilot believes drone strikes are a real problem. For example, airline captain Chris Manno believes they’re “much ado about nothing.” He says there are hundreds of bird strikes […]

  31. […] every pilot believes drone strikes are a actual problem. For example, airline leader Chris Manno believes they’re “a lot ado regarding nothing.” He says there are hundreds of bird strikes […]

  32. […] every pilot believes drone strikes are a real problem. For example, airline captain Chris Manno believes they’re “much ado about nothing.” He says there are hundreds of bird strikes […]

  33. […] every pilot believes drone strikes are a real problem. For example, airline captain Chris Manno believes they’re “much ado about nothing.” He says there are hundreds of bird strikes […]

  34. […] every pilot believes drone strikes are a real problem. For example, airline captain Chris Manno believes they’re “much ado about nothing.” He says there are hundreds of bird strikes […]

  35. […] every pilot believes drone strikes are a real problem. For example, airline captain Chris Manno believes they’re “much ado about nothing.” He says there are hundreds of bird strikes reported, but […]

  36. […] every pilot believes drone strikes are a real problem. For example, airline captain Chris Manno believes they’re “much ado about nothing.” He says there are hundreds of bird strikes […]

  37. […] every pilot believes drone strikes are a real problem. For example, airline captain Chris Manno believes they’re “much ado about nothing.” He says there are hundreds of bird strikes […]

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