The pilot on the United Airlines flight nearing Newark Liberty International Airport was given plenty of warning by air-traffic control that a drone was in his vicinity. Still, he sounded stunned at what he saw.
“We missed the drone by about 30 feet off our right wing,” the pilot radioed, stifling an incredulous chortle.
The United crew’s report was the second sighting within minutes and that was all it took for controllers to halt arrivals at one of the New York area’s busy airports, triggering hours of delays. More than 40 flights headed to Newark were disrupted as the airport temporarily shut down arrivals Tuesday after the report from the United pilot.
“OK, and looks like about the same altitude?” the air-traffic controller replied, according to a recording of Tuesday afternoon’s incident made available by the website LiveATC.net.
“Exact same altitude,” the pilot of United Flight 2335 said. “It was our exact same altitude, probably 20 feet, 30 feet off our right.”
A pilot on Southwest Airlines Co. Flight 476 first reported the device at 4:44 p.m., according to the Federal Aviation Administration and the flight-tracking website FlightAware. The temporary halt to arrivals forced 43 flights to hold, nine of which had to divert to other airports, FAA said.
“We’re not going to run anybody else through there right now,” the controller told a Delta Air Lines Inc. flight that was behind the United jet.
The FAA resumed arrivals within an hour, but had to delay dozens of other flights through the evening in an attempt to ease congestion from the initial event.
The disruption at Newark, a major hub in the New York metropolitan area, stoked fears of drone disruptions as U.S. regulators seek to expand civilian uses of the robotic aircraft while tightening security. It also recalled incidents at London’s Gatwick Airport, which was disrupted over three successive days last month after drone sightings, and Heathrow Airport, which was briefly shut down earlier this month when drone were sighted near its runways.
Tuesday’s device was spotted about nine miles north of Newark, over nearby Teterboro Airport. The FAA reported the device was at an altitude of 3,500 feet. The pilots on the Southwest jet said in a radio call it was at 3,600 feet.
“Be advised, there’s something on final here,” the Southwest pilot said in the first indication of a problem, according to the LifeATC.net recording, referring to the route planes take on their final approach to landing. “We thought maybe it was a drone. But there’s definitely something on final here.”
“You say something on final?” the controller said. “I’m not sure what you mean. Are you saying like an object or something?”
“Yes sir, an object. And it definitely looks like a drone,” the pilot said.
The Southwest pilot said the object was “pretty close,” though he estimated it was about a quarter of a mile away to their right. The controller then began warning other flights to be on alert for the object.
At one of the nation’s most congested and delay-prone airports, even a brief halt to landings can ripple though the day and cause disruptions for hours. The airport has also been plagued by delays in passenger security screening blamed on the partial government shutdown that began Dec. 22. On Monday, travelers waited as long as 40 minutes, according to the Transportation Security Administration.
The shutdown has also meant that FAA’s controllers are working without pay and some support workers—including some who would help investigate incidents like the one at Newark—are furloughed. Notification that air-traffic workers will miss their second paycheck begins today.
The incidents in London and Newark highlight a growing problem with drones: the potential for massive disruptions of commercial air travel by their mere presence. The U.S. government is drafting proposals that would track drones and identify their users in real time, but the rules are years away from becoming final.
The world’s largest civilian drone maker, China-based SZ DJI Technology Co. Ltd., issued a statement saying it would assist in any investigation, but raising doubts that a pilot could see such a small craft at that altitude. “Spotting one from a plane flying at more than 100 mph strains the limits of physical possibility,” said company spokesman Adam Lisberg.
The FAA has recorded hundreds of sightings of drones by pilots, including at Newark and other major commercial airports. There has been one confirmed collision in the U.S. between a drone and a traditional aircraft, an Army helicopter, which had minor damage, in 2017.