Investigators suspect drone involvement in SA aircraft accident

These are delicate times for the South African drone industry and aviation authorities in the country – the former could really do without suspicion that there are drone owners out there deploying their aerial vehicles on naughty missions around airports.

Sadly, that is where things are right now.

The Commercial Unmanned Aircraft Association of Southern Africa (CUAASA) has confirmed that the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) are investigating an incident in which a training aircraft was forced to land immediately after take-off at Rand Airport, a few kilometres to the east of Johannesburg CBD; after the pilot felt something hit his wing.

“An accident investigation by the South African Civil Aviation Authority’s (SACAA) Accident and Incident Investigations Division (AIID) is underway,” said CUAASA in a statement. “This comes after an incident at Rand Airport on Tuesday, 27 October 2020, which resulted in a pilot having to make a precautionary landing shortly after take-off.”

The student pilot was alone in the plane when the accident happened.

“Initial unconfirmed accounts indicate that considerable wing damage to the training aircraft led to the suspicion that an aerial drone was responsible for the collision. While bird strikes are usually synonymous with visual clues like blood and feathers, they can cause substantial damage to an aircraft. The investigation will determine the actual cause of the accident and therefore it cannot be immediately assumed a drone is to blame.”

Which is really scant information to make meat of at this point. It is wise to exercise caution before more information is made available, but on the face of it, it does feel a bit presumptuous of the investigators – in the absence of supporting evidence – to suspect a drone, just because they ruled out birds.

For us though, the sad part is that the drone industry cannot deny the initial assumptions with conviction either, because there are people out there who thrive on causing chaos; and some of them have found drones to be a good invention to abuse. The 2018 drone incident at Gatwick Airport in the United Kingdom is a stark reminder that sometimes humanity cannot legislate what human beings can do.

If it is indeed proved that a drone was involved, the development might set back relations between the drone industry and the aviation authority, which were slowly thawing since late last year, after years of attrition. SACAA has held a rather deem view of drone technology since the industry started taking root around 2015, and has been reluctant to issue out operators licences to organisations that need them. Since the government promulgated the Part 101 regulation for Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) in July 2015, they have issued only 64 operator’s licences by January this year.

It is therefore not surprising that CUAASA has reiterated the necessity for drone users to observe the laws when flying their drones; the understand the scales can easily tip the wrong way.

“The holiday season is upon us and it is a time when drones might be considered appropriate gifts to gadget enthusiasts and youngsters alike,” CUAASA said. “While hobbyists might be impressed by the technical capabilities of their newfound gadgets, flying responsibly, safely, and according the SACAA hobby rules is paramount to keeping the skies safe.

“It needs to be highlighted that airborne drones do pose a substantial risk to manned aircraft. A drone ingested into an engine could cause a catastrophic accident. It is therefore important to remind drone owners to follow the regulations and specifically not to fly their drone near aerodromes.”

Under the Part 101 regulations, hobby drones are forbidden from flying near manned aircraft, within ten kilometres of an aerodrome (airport, helipad or airfield); in controlled, restricted or prohibited airspace.

No drone weighing at least seven kilogrammes can be flown for recreation purposes.

CUAASA said they will issue a full statement once full details of the investigation are made public.


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