The pilot of an Alitalia flight coming to John F. Kennedy airport from Rome has reported seeing an unmanned drone, black in color and approximately three feet wide, 4-5 miles away from its final destination on Monday.
"We saw a drone, a drone aircraft," the pilot said over radio communications, noting that the craft was around 1,500 feet off the ground. No altercation occurred, and the plane landed safely at JFK.
The Federal Aviation Administration is launching an investigation of the incident in response, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation is pursuing one of its own. Special Agent John Giacalone said “The FBI is asking anyone with information about the unmanned aircraft or the operator to contact us… Our paramount concern is the safety of aircraft passengers and crew.”
Unusual as the incident is, it is not necessarily cause for grave concern. Other pilots in the vicinity did not report seeing anything unusual and, though Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has previously expressed interest in using unmanned drones, the NYPD neither possess any at the moment nor had any knowledge of any flight on Monday.
The craft may very well have not even been a drone at all. Though FAA regulations prohibit model planes from flying above an altitude of 400 feet, many remote-controlled recreational crafts are capable of reaching heights well above the 1,500 feet noted by Alitalia Flight 608’s pilot or the 1,750 ft. estimated in the FBI’s report. It is entirely possible a local resident could have simply been playing with a toy plane in violation of FAA rules; some manufacturers even design such RC vehicles to look just like predator drones used by the US military. If such is the case it is still a safety hazard—toy planes flying that high so close to an airport run the risk of colliding with existing air traffic (this one came as close as 200 feet to the airliner)—but not the sort of national security concern an actual unidentified drone would be.
Whatever the craft was, investigators have thus far been unable to identify where it came from or who was controlling it. The FBI is asking anyone with information on the matter to report it by calling 212-384-1000.