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Air Force One nearly hit by small drone Sunday, witnesses say

Air Force One takes off from Palm Beach International Airport on its way to Washington D.C. carry President Donald J. Trump. [JOSEPH FORZANO/
August 17, 2020

President Donald Trump’s jet was nearly hit by what appeared to be a small drone as it approached an airport near Washington on Sunday night, according to several people aboard Air Force One.

The device, which was yellow and black and shaped like a cross, was off the right side of the plane. It was seen by several passengers on the jet, and the incident occurred shortly before the plane touched down at 5:54 p.m.

The Secret Service didn’t immediately respond on Monday to a request to confirm the reports. The North American Aerospace Defense Command, which coordinates air security issues in North America, referred questions to the Secret Service. The Federal Aviation Administration referred questions on the matter to the Air Force.

While it has been notoriously difficult for aviation safety investigators to verify such fleeting events, it appears to be among the thousands of such safety incidents involving unmanned devices in the U.S. that have prompted calls by law enforcement and homeland security agencies for greater measures to rein in their use.

Most civilian drones weigh only a few pounds and probably couldn’t take down a jetliner. But government research suggests the damage could be greater than that from a similar-sized bird, which could shatter a cockpit windshield or damage an engine.

Trump was flying in the modified Boeing Co. 757 that is among the fleet of jets known as Air Force One when the president is aboard.

The FAA receives thousands of reports per year in which drones fly too close to other aircraft or operate in restricted areas. Most of the reports come from pilots.

Under current federal regulations, drones must be flown within sight of the operator and no higher than 400 feet (122 meters) above the ground without special waivers. While the most popular drone models are equipped with software designed to prevent longer range flights, incidents continue to pile up, according to government records.

There have been a handful of instances in which drones actually struck aircraft, but none have resulted in a serious crash or injuries, according to National Transportation Safety Board data.

A hobbyist drone being flown illegally near New York City struck an Army helicopter on Sept. 21, 2017, the NTSB found. The impact damaged the helicopter, but it was able to land safely.

The NTSB last month concluded that a drone most likely struck a KABC-TV chopper flying above downtown Los Angeles on Dec. 4.

Drone sightings have occasionally disrupted operations at major airports, such as when pilots nearing Newark Liberty International Airport reported nearly colliding with a small drone in January 2019.

The FAA hopes to unveil regulations requiring that civilian drones transmit their location and identity by the end of the year. The new requirement is designed to help prevent the devices from being used by terrorists and to reduce the risks they pose to traditional aircraft.


(Jennifer Jacobs contributed to this report.)


©2020 Bloomberg News

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