Contrary to previous reports, an Embraer 175 that took off from Chicago O’Hare Airport last week did not collide with a drone, but with a party balloon. This is reported by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) after an investigation. A sound fragment in which the pilot claims to have hit a drone was picked up worldwide by the media and caused a lot of unrest in aviation circles.
FAA: Embraer 175 did not collide with drone, but with party balloon
The incident happened at approximately 6:20 p.m. local time on Sunday. An Embraer 175 of the American airline Envoy Air has just taken off from Chicago for a scheduled flight to Detroit. Shortly after takeoff, at an altitude of about 2,500 feet (about 760 meters), the pilot sees in a flash an object on a collision course with the aircraft. The pilot calls on ATC to report a collision with a suspected drone:
“Departure, Envoy 3961, we just hit something. I believe we hit a drone about 30 seconds ago. We’d like to return to O’Hare.”
His request is granted, and the pilot allows the plane to return to Chicago, where it stays in a circuit for some time to burn off some fuel before landing. Then the pilot calls on the ground crew to get ready for an inspection of the aircraft:
“We might want someone to look at… to inspect the airplane when we get on the ground.”
After a successful landing, the aircraft is inspected that same evening and found to be in order. No damage is found and the aircraft may be put back into service immediately. The story that a passenger plane may have been hit by a drone has already made the news worldwide. Various media report the suspected collision with a drone, partly on the basis of the sound fragment below:
Balloon mistaken for drone
After further investigation by the FAA, however, it turns out that it was not a drone at all, but a Mylar balloon, or a balloon filled with helium that is used for festive and decorative purposes. Such party balloons can reach heights of hundreds of meters and be carried by the wind for hundreds of kilometers if they accidentally lift off the ground.
In the flash of a second that a pilot has to visually make an observation – especially during the hectic pace of a take-off or landing – it is impossible to determine with certainty what kind of object it is. In an era in which drones are still seen by many pilots as a major threat to regular air traffic, wrong conclusions are quickly drawn.
The problem is that it is a self-reinforcing mechanism: a pilot reports a collision with a suspected drone, such a story ends up in the media worldwide and causes a lot of fuss in aviation circles, but the real conclusion – namely that it is about a balloon went – you hardly read anything back after that, let alone that earlier reports are corrected. As a result, other pilots nowadays immediately think of a drone as soon as they see an unidentified object.
Keep a cool head
It is certainly not the case that drones do not fly in places where that is not the intention. That also became clear last week, when a Cessna collided with a large-sized drone in Canada, which turned out to be controlled by a police team. Fortunately, that collision ended without casualties, but the damage was considerable. The investigation into the cause is still ongoing, but it is already clear that it is not just hobby drones that cause problems (certainly given the fact that the incident with the police drone in Canada is not an isolated incident).
In the meantime, it is hoped that people will keep a cool head and that stricter regulations for drones will not be imposed again, based on panic stories in the media. Or as Plane & Pilot Magazine dryly concludes, “While the FAA has created registries for drones and drone operators, it hasn’t created any for Mylar balloons or their operators.”
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Cover photo: Envoy Air