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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 24th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Drama in the skies

28 March 2018

Damn, the mainstream media (or should I say the press release publication machine) is at it again.

According to reports in the national media (and now world-wide, thanks to the global appetite for clickbait headlines), a drone was "almost sucked into an airliner's engine" while on approach to Auckland International Airport the other day.

Oh my goodness, how lucky the hundreds of people in that airliner were to so narrowly avoid certain death!

Yeah, right!

Virtually all of our national media jumped on this story and within hours, each had published multiple stories on the incident.

The claim was that a drone had narrowly missed, by just 5 metres, an 777 airliner on approach to Auckland International Airport and now AirNZ was calling for "tougher regulation" on drones and their users.

But let's apply some science and objective thinking to this whole thing shall we?

Where is the evidence?

Well there's no photographic evidence, no radar evidence, no independent third party reports -- just the claims of a single airline pilot.

But surely we can believe a pilot... after all, he's... a pilot for Christ's sake!

Okay, but what about the pilot of flight BA727 who claimed to have hit a drone while on approach to Heathrow in 2016? Well it turns out that, on inspection of his aircraft, there was no sign of a collision and it was almost certain that what he hit was nothing more than a lightweight plastic shopping bag.

But he's a pilot for Christ's sake!

Then there was the airliner in Mozambique which, the pilot claimed, hit a drone while on approach for landing, causing extensive damage to the front of the plane. Yet, it eventually turned out that it didn't hit a drone at all.

But he's a pilot for Christ's sake!

And let's not forget the Australian pilot who swore black and blue that he hit a drone when landing at Parafield Airport. Turns out that it's most likely his plane actually collided with a fruit bat.

So let's look at the Auckland situation...

Here we have a pilot (for Christ's sake) who is undoubtedly a member of NZALPA, an organisation which has on many occasions issued public statements demanding tougher drone regulation. Those calls for tougher regs have to date, fallen on deaf ears so I imagine they're getting pretty frustrated at this lack of traction.

Then, suddenly, we have a spate of "drone incidents" involving aircraft being flown by NZALPA members and in the case of this latest event, not one single shred of independent supporting evidence. Of course we must remember that "these are pilot's for Christ's sake" but they are fighting for their livelihoods. The recent testing of a pilotless air taxi in Christchurch must be putting the fear of God into these pilots because they can see their jobs being replaced by automation a whole lot more quickly than they might previously have thought.

So back to the science...

A Boeing 777 of the type involved in the latest incident has an approach speed of around 300kph. At that speed, the aircraft is traveling at around 85 metres a second.

A small drone, like the DJI phantom, is really only clearly visible from a distance of about 200m -- probably less if it's against a cluttered background.

A period of time during which an aircraft is on approach to an airport is the busiest time for pilots. They are having to run through a raft of checklists and monitor a number of systems. Their workload is very high during this period.

Now we're being told that the pilot of the 777, despite the high workload and multiple calls on his attention, saw an object about 200m away approaching at 300kph, identified it as a drone and accurately determined its closest distance from his airliner. The fleeting glimpse that any pilot would get of such an object probably explains the number of false drone collision reports we see in the media. Even though "he's a pilot for Christ's sake", it's simply not humanly possible to make such determinations in such a short space of time.

So there's a very high chance that the pilot was mistaken and the lack of substantiating evidence must further challenge the veracity of the claims being made.

But let's look at how the media has handled this incident.

The first thing they did, without exception, was simply publish the "fact" that an airliner had almost collided with a drone along with the statement and call for tougher regulations made by AirNZ.

There was no objectivity or investigation... the vast majority of the copy carried by all news organisations was simply material excerpted directly from the AirNZ statement.

It was very clear that the media weren't interested in digging on this story, they simply saw an opportunity to knock out a few very easy drone-disaster stories and stir up a but more hysteria. No doubt they also had syndication revenues in mind because I see that this story has now gone world-wide. And remember, not a shred of independent evidence to back up the claims of a pilot whose union has made it very clear that they are strongly anti-drone and seeking tougher drone rules.

Now I figured I'd offer a counterpoint to the media so I emailed most of the main news organisations, offering them some science and facts in the hope that they'd write a follow-up story that was a little more balanced and reflected the realities of the risk from drones rather than the hysteria they were cultivating.

What a sad indictment on the so-called Fourth Estate when, with the exception of RadioNZ, not one of these "news" organisations even responded.

So folks, when you read your daily or watch your TV news, remember that you are *not* getting an objective, unbiased, accurate presentation of the facts. You are very clearly getting nothing more than whatever the editor thinks is going to generate the most page-views or eyeballs on screens. And don't think you can jump to the Net for the real story... Google News is already saturated with these press releases masquerading as factual, researched reports.

To their credit, RadioNZ have asked me to appear on Morning Report tomorrow and give a counterpoint. Could it be that the lack of commercial imperative at RNZ means they are the only mainstream media orgnisation prepared to actually deliver balanced and researched news these days?

Finally, the most worrying thing about this whole situation is that the government is now reportedly considering tougher drone regulations (at the behest of AirNZ), even though it is patently clear that this would achieve absolutely nothing.

Even if we accept that there was a drone and that it did almost collide with the airliner on Sunday, we have to realise that this drone was being operated illegally, in clear violation of the existing regulations. There is no way you can endanger a manned aircraft with a drone without breaching the existing drone regulations -- full stop.

This means that whoever was flying that drone was either ignorant of the regulations or simply made the conscious decision to ignore them.

Toughening up regulations that are unknown or being ignored will not change the behaviour of people like whoever was flying their drone on Sunday. However, toughening up drone regulations will negatively affect the vast majority of responsible people who do comply.

As I've said before, and as even CAA acknowledge, the problem is no longer an issue of regulations (we already have quite strong regulation), it's an issue of education and enforcement. That AirNZ and our cloth-head politicians don't understand this is a very worrying situation. If you don't understand the problem then you have no way of solving it do you?

Of course all of the above must be tempered with the very important fact that "they're pilots for Christ's sake".

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