Close Call for Drone, Airliner Near Twin Cities, Minn., Airport

At about five miles southeast of the airport, the pilot spotted the drone flying about 50 feet from the plane at an altitude of 2,500 feet.

(TNS) — Authorities are investigating a close encounter between a recreational drone and an airliner preparing to land Monday at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The pilot of Shuttle America Flight 3504 spotted the drone flying about 50 feet from the plane at an altitude of 2,500 feet about five miles southeast of the airport, airport spokesman Patrick Hogan said Wednesday.

"That's obviously very, very close," Hogan said.

He said the encounter with the twin-propeller drone occurred just before 5:30 p.m. as the airliner passed over Interstate 494 in Eagan.

No warnings were issued by the flight crew, and the plane landed without incident, said a spokesman for Republic Airways Holdings, which owns Shuttle America.

The Federal Aviation Administration reported the incident to Eagan police, who searched the area but did not find the drone or its operator, said Detective Desiree Schroepfer, police spokeswoman.

FAA rules prohibit drones -- also called unmanned aircraft systems -- from flying within five miles of an airport and no higher than 400 feet.

As the popularity of drones increases across the United States, so has the number of reports of the unmanned craft being flown near airports and in other restricted areas.

Hogan said Monday's close call was an isolated incident for the airport.

"But it's a growing issue -- a real concern," he said. "The more drones you get in the air -- if people don't use them responsibly -- they obviously could create a danger for aircraft."

Hogan compared the dangers posed by drones to that of birds, noting the January 2009 emergency landing by a US Airways airliner in New York's Hudson River after its engines failed after striking several geese in flight.

"Certainly, if you get a 30-pound drone, it could also cause some severe damage to an engine," Hogan said.

A big challenge for authorities is finding the drone's operators, Hogan said.

"(Operators) are supposed to stay -- I believe -- within visual contact of the drone, but if they don't, it becomes a difficult thing to enforce," he said.

The FBI also was investigating Monday's incident, said spokesman Kyle Loven, who declined to say whether the agency had any solid leads.

FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said the agency receives about 60 reports of drones from pilots each month.

In many cases, she said, the FAA was unable to verify if what the pilots saw was a drone, "a bird, sun glint from the ground or something else."

"But pilots rarely have taken evasive action," Cory said.

However, on Sunday, the pilot of a small, single-engine, private aircraft was forced to turn sharply to miss a drone at an altitude of about 1,000 feet over New Jersey, according to news reports.

Also last weekend, three commercial airline pilots reported seeing drones flying near their aircraft near John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, according to news reports.

Cory said any penalties against a drone operator are usually left up to the discretion of local jurisdictions. However, she said, the FAA is developing possible sanctions of its own.

The FAA is also partnering with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, Academy of Model Aeronautics and the Small UAV Coalition, she said, "to make sure everyone who flies a UAS is familiar with the 'rules of the air.' "

"Drones have so much practicality," Hogan said, "but how do you regulate them? Because there are also all these privacy concerns, there are security concerns and there are concerns that they could bring down a plane.

"It's something that the FAA I know is really going to have to struggle with to try to find a way to allow them to be used to the extent that they're practical but also minimizing risks."

©2015 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.