Close Call with an F-22 Has the Air Force on Alert

Last week, an F-22 Raptor fighter jet coming in for landing just missed colliding with a small UAV, thanks to the great reflexes and training of the pilot. This incident has the top brass of the Armed Forces in high alert, especially when another drone sighting happened at the base just a few days prior.

At an Air Force Association breakfast in Washington D.C., Tuesday, Gen. Mike Holmes, commander of Air Combat Command, said  a pilot in a Lockheed Martin (LMT) F-22 had a “near collision with a small UAS” while trying to land. He said that a hobbyist was most likely flying the unmanned aerial system, but warned, “you never know.” Just a few days earlier, a base security guard observed another small UAV fly into the complex and over the flight line before heading back out. In both cases the airman and the ground troops didn’t have the legal authority to shoot down or otherwise disable the drone.

“Imagine a world where somebody flies a couple hundred of those, and flies one down the intake of one of my F-22s with just a small weapon,” Holmes added. “I need the authorities to deal with that.”

Unauthorized UAV flights near protected facilities are a complicated legal issue. The FAA is legally responsible for the safety and security of the airspace of the country, and has already established no-fly zones over every U.S. military base, so any UAV flight in such areas is illegal. But deciding when it is OK for the military to disable or destroy the unmanned vessel which overflies its facilities is still something of a gray area.

Apart from the Pentagon and the FAA, multiple government agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and state and local legislatures, have complicated jurisdictional responsibilities that need to be in compliance with the FAA mandate. As drone technology becomes more available, the armed forces are increasingly worried about the threats posed by small UAVs to their multi-million dollar equipment and the safety of its personnel. The various services are developing tools to defend and deter against small UAVs, from jamming their electronics to shooting them down, but at the end of the day they lack the legal authority to use them.

“We will likely receive the authority to defend the nuclear installations first, and then we will try to work the other ones,” Holmes added. “We need to extend those authorities beyond the nuclear sites to protect the sophisticated assets we rely on.”

For the FAA, the most immediate concern is small drones flying near busy commercial airports. The agency has tested several different detection systems at several airports, and the number of initiatives to detect and destroy unauthorized drones seems to rise exponentially with every new close call. While Gen. Holmes and his ACC have no authority to disable or track UAVs near its bases, the air force’s nuclear sites are working on getting government approval to legally deal with gate-crashing drones.

The FAA expects the number of hobbyist drones to soar from 1.1 million at the end of 2016 to more than 3.5 million by 2021. The commercial, non-hobbyist UAS fleet is expected to grow from 42,000 at the end of last year to 442,000 aircraft by 2021, with the possibility of as many as 1.6 million drones.

Given that these occurrences and close calls are happening more and more, it is up to us as an industry to be vigilant and compliant with rules and regulations. If someone is going to cause an accident, either with a military or civilian manned aircraft, let’s make sure that is not someone engaged in a commercial enterprise. This will make life a lot harder for the rest of the responsible members of this exploding new industry.


About the Author

Juan received a degree in Geodesy and a master in digital photogrammetry from Universidad Central de Venezuela and a MBA in international Finance from Florida International University. He has over 750 hours of experience in photogrammetry navigation and camera operation in aircraft as varied as WWII B-25, Cessna 310, Lear Jet 25C and Piper Aztec. Juan holds a Commercial, Multi-engine Pilot certificate. Juan has been selling mapping UAV’s in Latin America for four years and is a frequent guest speaker in events where the safety of flying UAV’s and the fact that unmanned and manned aircraft inevitably will share the same airspace, is a relevant topic. He is the CEO of Juan B Plaza Consulting, a services’ firm specializing in UAV and general aviation issues.

4 Responses

  1. Gil

    Opinion: Small UAVs in hobbyist hands are a danger; I’m also appalled at the lack of knowledge of many 107 “pilots”. Policy 7200.23 must be integrated into any 107 training syllabus and the AKT must test for competence; further, there must be an ACS developed for 107 certification which means a flight test.

  2. Jim Brown

    As a certified FAA drone (remote) pilot I think I speak for the commercial drone industry when I say incidents of this nature need to be resolved quickly and decisively. Shoot the damn things down with prejudice when they encroach into military installations or other sensitive facilities. Whether the offending operator is a rogue hobbyist or someone with more nefarious intentions, there needs to be zero-tolerance of such behavior. I suspect the vast majority of hobbyists feel the same way. It’s this type of callous disregard for safety and property that will eventually result in further sanctions against civilian unmanned aircraft. Unless you have authorization and clearance to enter such a facility, KEEP OUT!

  3. Rik A

    If a Drone flying a commercial mission is disabled due to being flown in a no fly zone, then the pilot of that Drone should be retested (or fired).

  4. Russell Allen

    Is a small UAV really going to harm an F-22 Raptor? Lockheed Martin I want my tax money back you got on your defense contract.

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