A rogue drone came close to crashing into an RAF plane carrying a team of high-ranking UK government officials, a report from the aviation accident watchdog has revealed.
The BAR-146 jet was flying at 4,000ft over north London in late March when it came “extremely close” to being hit by a drone operating at 10 times its legal maximum height.
In its report, UK Airprox Board investigators rated the incident Category C, which means there was no risk of collision, although the jet’s pilots felt there was a “medium risk”.
They said the drone “appeared to be within 50 to 100ft above their altitude and passed just to the starboard side of the aircraft”.
If a collision had taken place, it would have been the first incident of its kind in UK airspace.
Among those on board was Sir Tim Barrow, political director at the UK Foreign Office and one of the government’s chief Brexit negotiators.
The former UK ambassador to Russia and the EU was returning from Brussels on the evening of March 26 after being sent to mediate in the internecine dispute over supplies of the AstraZeneca-Oxford Covid-19 vaccine.
The aircraft in question is one of two in the RAF’s 32 (Royal) Squadron designed to transport government ministers and British royals.
The incident was reported to London’s Metropolitan Police by air traffic controllers at RAF Northolt.
Plane and drone near misses rising
With drone use mushrooming in recent years, near misses between unmanned devices and planes are on the increase.
In 2010, the UK Airprox Board recorded a total of six near misses, a figure which rocketed to 139 in 2018 before dropping off slightly to 125 in 2019. The reduction to 45 near misses recorded in 2020 can be put down to far fewer planes flying as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
One of those 45 misses was recorded as the closest of all time, however.
In November last year, pilots on board an EasyJet flight from Manchester to Athens saw “a large drone pass very close to the aircraft windscreen”, an inquiry found.
It was described as blue, around 50cm long and weighing “at least 10kgs”.
In April this year, drone users in Gloucestershire were warned by police after an unlicensed device came close to hitting an aircraft flying at 2,400ft about two miles south of Gloucestershire Airport, formerly Staverton Airport.
In December 2018, a sighting of a drone caused the UK’s second-largest airport, London Gatwick, to close for two days. A culprit was never discovered.