DRONES AND UFOs: new data reveals rise in close encounters with aircraft in UK airspace

Aircrew have a reported an increase in the numbers of close encounters between ‘unknown objects’ and passenger aircraft since a drone caused chaos at Gatwick Airport.

Night flying drone or UFO? The UK Airprox Board struggle to define the decide what constitutes an ‘unknown object’ (credit: Image by Pexels from Pixabay)

A pattern of disturbing incidents has emerged from data obtained by a team of investigative journalists from Newsquest Media that I have been collaborating with.

Data released by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) reveals five reports in April this year alone.

And six of the cases involving ‘unknown objects’ reported in the past 12 months have been placed in the highest risk category.

That is defined as circumstances ‘in which serious risk of [a] collision has existed’.

Since May 2017 the joint CAA and military sponsored UK Airprox board (UKAB) have collated a special log of ‘Consolidated Drone/Balloon/Unknown Object reports’.

This breaks down hazards into four categories: drones [remotely piloted vehicles or UAVs], balloons [including toys and meteorological/research balloons], model aircraft and unknown objects.

If a pilot has clearly described a sighting with ‘drone-like properties’ (e.g. ‘four rotors’) then it is classified as a drone.

But ‘if the reporting pilot can only vaguely describe “an object” then it is classified as unknown object’.

In plain English, an unknown object is for all intents and purposes a UFO.

Last year 11 incidents involving ‘unknowns’ were logged. But by the end of this first six months of this year, 12 had been investigated by UKAB.

Graphic showing rise in airprox reports involving drones and ‘other objects’ to June 2019 (credit: Civil Aviation Authority: https://www.airproxboard.org.uk/Reports-and-analysis/Statistics/Statistics/)

Meanwhile the numbers of airprox incidents involving objects categorised as drones, spiralled from just six cases in 2014 – when a pilot reported a ‘air miss’ with a rugby-ball shaped UFO near Heathrow airport – to 125 by 2018.

This drone flap reached its height on 19 December last year when a security guard’s sighting of two objects over Gatwick’s main runway led the authorities to close the airport for 33 hours.

According to a BBC Panorama investigation some 140,000 people were caught up in the disruption that followed.

The shutdown led 1,000 flights to be cancelled or delayed at an estimated cost of £50 million to airlines.

The chaos led Gatwick to call in the military and millions more have been spent on hi-tech jamming technology. The government also moved to widen the exclusion zone around airports from one to five kilometres and police were given more powers to seize drones from their operators.

Sussex Police continue to believe that a real drone or drones were involved in the Gatwick incident. But at an early stage in their investigation doubts were expressed by one of their own senior officers, Det Chief Supt Jason Tingley who told the BBC: ‘We cannot discount the possibility that there may have been no drone at all’.

And further confusion was caused by the police’s decision to launch its own drones to investigate – leading witnesses to see and report them.

BBC News report on chaos at Gatwick airport 20 December 2018 (credit: BBC News)

Yet in April this year Gatwick’s chief operating officer, Chris Woodroofe,  told the BBC the airport authorities had received 130 separate ‘credible drone sightings’ from 115 people including trusted staff such as security patrols.

‘They knew they’d seen a drone. I know they saw a drone,’ Woodroofe said. ‘We appropriately closed the airport’.

But the owners of the mysterious ‘drone’ have never been identified and no reliable footage showing the drone/s has emerged.

According to Gatwick the eye-witnesses described seeing an extremely fast moving, large object with bright lights attached. In any other context this would be classified as a sighting of an unidentified flying object.

UKAB investigates all reported incidents judged to have been a risk to aircraft and their passengers. The log for 2018-19 contains some disturbing cases.

In one example from April a pilot climbing out of Gatwick saw an object pass below the aircraft and under the right-hand wing just 30-50ft below. The small object ‘was contrasted against the clouds and appeared dark green in colour with a white light on top’ and ‘may have been hovering’.

Four months earlier, on 30 December – just ten days after the Gatwick shutdown – a pilot on approach to Glasgow airport saw long object ‘lit up in various places’ pass between 3 and 10 feet of the aircraft at 600 feet.

Toy drones can fly up to several hundred feet but unmanned surveillance drones operated by the military (such as the RQ-4 Global Hawk) are capable of reaching 50,000 feet.

My sources in the aviation industry feel it is much more likely that some of the airprox incidents involving civilian aircraft at higher altitudes involve helium-filled toy balloons. These are often described as ‘silver balls’ or ‘black and shiny metallic in colour’.

The cluster of ‘drone’/UFO reports around the perimeter of Gatwick, Britain’s second largest airport, is nothing new. The MoD closed its UFO desk in 2009 and asked the Civil Aviation Authority not to send it any further reports.

But the MoD’s own files contain many examples of airprox incidents involving civilian aircraft and ‘unknown objects’. An intelligence study of the threat posed by UAPs [unidentified aerial phenomena] completed in the 1990s referred to the increase in ‘unauthorised penetration of UKADGE by unmanned aerial vehicles’ [drones].

The UAP files include several examples from the vicinity of Gatwick Airport long before the current panic.

For instance, on 15 July 1991 the crew of a Britannia Airways Boeing 737 returning from Greece and descending into Gatwick at 14,000 feet saw ‘a small, black lozenge-shaped object’ zoom past at high speed 100 yards off the port side. Gatwick controllers confirmed a ‘primary contact’ was visible on radar 10 nautical miles behind the 737 moving at a speed estimated as 120 mph.

Immediately Gatwick controllers warned the captain of another aircraft and this made ‘avoiding turns to the left to avoid the [UFO], which had appeared to change heading towards it, but its pilot reported seeing nothing’.

The airprox report, completed in April 1992 by a UKAB working group, said they could not explain the incident. But they opined the object might have been an escaped balloon but were ‘unsure what damage could have occurred had the object struck the 737; the general opinion was that there had been a possible risk of collision’.

In 2012 Simon Jack, the Chief Executive of Britain’s National Air Traffic Control Services (NATS), the company employed by the CAA to operate air traffic services in the UK, admitted his controllers often receive reports of flying objects ‘that don’t conform to normal flight patterns’.

But, quizzed on BBC Radio 4, Jack played down the significance of this admission by adding ‘it’s not something that occupies a lot of my time’.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – now called drones – are nothing new. This news report from The Independent in December 1990 predicted ‘the skies over British cities may soon contain tiny, silent aircraft that can see, listen and even scent everything that goes on hundreds of feet below’ (credit: The Independent)

This new evidence suggests that unknown objects and ‘drones’ are now much more of a priority both for Britain’s busy air traffic controllers and those responsible for the air defence of the UK and our allies.

Iin May this year The New York Times reported that strange objects, one of them described as resembling ‘a spinning top’, were frequently seen by US Navy pilots over the East Coast.

In 2014 a Super Hornet pilot filed a near-collision report after a close encounter with one of these ‘unknown objects’and others have been captured on film.

There has been much speculation about US Defense Department projects charged with secret investigations of UFOs in the context of ‘extraterrestrial craft’. But as the Times noted:

‘no one in the [US] Defense Department is saying the objects were extraterrestrial, and experts emphasize that earthly explanations can generally be found for such incidents’.

One of the most obvious explanations is the presence of highly secret unmanned aerial vehicles, or advanced drones operated by the military, that are being tested in combat situations.

The new UKAB data reveals incidents involving military aircraft have also occurred recently in British airspace. In January this year the leader of a formation of Eurofighter Typhoons leaving RAF Coningsby on an exercise spotted ‘a small, metal object’ that reflected sunlight less than one mile away as the aircraft were about to climb from 15-30,000 feet.

The unknown object passed down the left hand side of the fighter and the wingman, following behind, ‘independently saw the same object as it passed over the leader’s aircraft’ about 2,000 feet above them.

In this case nothing was seen on radar but the reported risk of collision was judged to be ‘high’.

RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire is one of two RAF Quick Reaction Alert stations that protect the UK’s airspace from Russian intruders and is home to two combat-ready squadrons.

Perhaps now is the time to re-boot the much-maligned ‘UFO desk’ with a new name and a remit to investigate all credible reports of unknown objects made by aircrew.

Not on a case by case basis, as appears to be the UKAB’s limited remit, or mired in unnecessary secrecy as in the USA, but taking into account all relevant data from the UK and other countries.

After all safety is not just the concern of a small clique of aviation industry specialists. It concerns everyone who places their trust in the system when they decide to fly.


Uckfield (East Sussex) 19:20 – 14 July 2017 

The pilot of a A319 reports that he was holding at 7,000 ft, when the First Officer, in the right-hand seat noticed an object close to the aircraft. He commented on the object to the captain who then also saw it. Both believed the object was not close enough to hit the aircraft, and that they were on a trajectory to miss it. It was a black and shiny/metallic in colour and appeared to be a square/rectangular cube. It appeared to be maintaining altitude and took around seven seconds to pass, making them believe it was hovering. It was definitely not a weather balloon, but because they couldn’t make out any propellers on the side of the object, they weren’t sure whether it was a drone. The crew alerted Air Traffic Control, who passed the information onto the aircraft behind, however, they did not report seeing it.

Reported Separation: 0ft V/<500m H. Reported Risk of Collision: None

East Grinstead (West Sussex) 15:35 – 12 August 2017 

A A320 pilot reports he was passing 8,000 feet in the climb when he saw a silver ball type object pass directly under the aircraft, very close. He reported it to Air Traffic

Reported Separation: 200ft V/0m H. Reported Risk of Collision: High

Manchester 18:10 – 1 February 2018

A Airbus A321 pilot reported descending from 10,000 ft at night when his eye was caught by a greyish thin-profiled ‘something’ which passed by very close at the same level down the left-hand side at great speed. His initial reaction was that he had seen an internal reflection in his glasses or the windshield but it was immediately apparent that the First Officer and another person on the flight deck had also seen it. None of them had a clear view because it was in the landing-light beam for a split second. The pilot noted that having seen balloons in flight before, this object did not fit that profile.

Brooklands (London) 12:45 – 5 May 2018

A B757 pilot reports operating under a high workload, preparing for an approach at Gatwick in busy airspace, when the First Officer said “what’s that?”. The Captain looked out and saw a fairly large, irregular shaped, dark black object pass down the left side at the same level, within 200ft of the aircraft, apparently heading in an easterly direction. No avoiding action was needed but the incident was reported to Gatwick Director.

Reported Separation: 0ft V/100m H. Reported Risk of Collision: High

Birmingham (West Midlands) 09:30  – 5 July 2018

A BE90 pilot reports he was cruising at FL16,000, about 10 nautical miles north of Birmingham when he saw a rectangle or elliptical object pass 500-1000ft below. He estimated it to be 50-100cm long, although he only saw it for about 2 seconds before it passed underneath the aircraft. It was either hovering or travelling in the opposite direction, there was no time to take any avoiding action.

Reported Separation: ~750ft V/0m H. Reported Risk of Collision: Low

Glasgow 18:45 –  30 December 2018

A Embraer 175 pilot reports that on approach to Glasgow airport, when passing about 600ft he saw an object pass between 3 and 10ft from the aircraft, at the same level. He couldn’t tell was the object was, it was lit up in various places and was more horizontally long than it was vertically. Reported Separation: 0ft V/ 3-10ft H.

RAF Coningsby – near Grimsby (Lincolnshire) 11:40 – 15 January 2019

A RAF Typhoon pilot reports leading a pair of fighters from Coningsby to an exercise in the North Sea. After receiving a clearance to climb to 30,000 from 15,000 ft, he noticed an object in the left 11 o’clock at about 1 nautical mile, slightly high and maintaining a constant altitude. The radar and data link showed no traffic conflictions. The object reflected sunlight and appeared to have a linear form. The object passed down the left-hand-side. The wingman independently saw the same object as it passed over the leader’s aircraft. He maintained the formation at 15,000 ft until they were clear of the object.

Eurofighter Typhoon leaving RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire (credit: image Crown Copyright)

The Weapons Controller reports the Typhoons were transiting from Coningsby to the North Sea exercise. At 1140 the lead Typhoon pilot reported that a small, metal object had flown overhead approximately 2,000ft above them.There were no plots, hits or any other indication on the radar picture.

Reported Separation: 1000ftV/1000ft H. Reported Risk of Collision: High

Highgate (London) 14:09 30/3/19 

A B787 pilot reports that a red coloured object passed down the right hand side of the aircraft at 6,000 ft. It was impossible to identify the object although it was large enough to cause concern. LHR approach were informed and an uneventful approach and landing followed. Reported Separation: 0ft V/<100ft H. Reported Risk of Collision: High

Crawley (West Sussex) 14:00 5/5/19

The A320 pilot reports that on departure from Gatwick, whilst in the climb, a totally white object resembling a shoebox sized cube with a round ball on top passed down the left-hand side, slightly above and within 50m of the aircraft at 6,000ft. The object appeared to be in level flight.

Reported Separation: 100ft V/50m H. Reported Risk of Collision: None

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