Suburban airport on alert after drone scares
There's nothing like the thrill of taking your new DJI Phantom 3 or 4 drone out for a spin and vicariously soaring over the suburban landscape.
Except, of course, when it gets too close to a Cessna landing at the local airport.
Don't think such a scenario would never happen. Chicago Executive Airport officials have had two close encounters with unmanned aircraft that prompted a public relations blitz to households near the Wheeling facility.
The first unsettling event occurred in November. During an early morning inspection, ground crews found a downed drone near the runway.
This March, a neighbor alerted airport operators that a drone was being flown next to the airfield, although it had disappeared by the time staff members checked.
"Real airplanes and drones do not mix," said pilot Rob Mark, who handles airport communications. "An accident is just that -- when two things get together when no one expected them to be together."
Hobby drones are proliferating, with the FAA estimating 2.3 million will be purchased this year and 13 million by the end of 2020, The Associated Press reported.
At the same time, sightings of drones near airports or airplanes number more than 100 a month nationwide. In the Chicago area, seven close calls were reported from October through December 2016, according to recent FAA data. Among them was the drone crash Nov. 30 near the Chicago Executive runway.
Chicago Executive has distributed thousands of handouts this year advising hobbyists on flying safely with drones and offers advice on its website at chiexec.com/drones-resources/.
The message is "we don't need to be waiting for some closer call or for an aircraft to run into one of these things with its wing or engine or cockpit," Mark said. "We want people in the community to understand that they're all part of one big aviation community and we have to look out for each other."
The airport's campaign comes as drone regulations are entering a murky phase. A May court ruling threw out a 2015 federal rule requiring recreational drone users to register their machines.
The FAA says it is evaluating the decision and encourages hobbyists to still register.
The issue dates back to a 2012 FAA modernization bill that exempted hobbyists from certain restrictions commercial drone users fall under, explained Brendan Stewart, a co-founder of Park Ridge-based Aero Vista Innovations, which trains public safety and business drone operators.
For the FAA, "it's very difficult for them to impose training requirements for hobbyists," said Stewart, of Waukegan. "Hobbyists still exist in a black hole and it will stay that way" until Congress changes the law.
Commercial drone operator John Pauly of North Aurora thinks "when droning was less popular, I would say this (court ruling) is a great victory. Now when kids or other people crash their drones it will affect the commercial market negatively, and create even more regulations for the professional market."
Meanwhile, drone owner Fred Pfeifer, a photographer and videographer from Arlington Heights, "strongly believes that drone registration will help make it possible to create a culture of safety that deters careless and reckless behavior," he said.
Got an opinion on drones? Drop me an email at email@example.com.
One more thing
Here are some FAA guidelines for recreational drone users: Fly at or below 400 feet, keep your drone within sight, never fly near other airplanes, particularly near airports, never fly over groups of people, keep away from stadiums or sports events and never fly near emergencies such as fires. To learn more, go to faa.gov/uas/getting_started/fly_for_fun/.
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