UPDATE: FAA reported the incident officially as a bird strike.

With 187 people on board, United Airlines Flight 1003, a Boeing 737 Max 9, departed from San Francisco (KSFO) en route to Denver (KDEN) early on March 23rd. Pilots calmly reported just after take-off to Air Traffic Control (ATC) early into the flight, “Hey, we have a problem. We just hit a drone. Stand by for a second. We’ll go to Norcal, but we gotta see what we’re doing here.”

ATC responded to confirm the pilot’s report, “Okay, and you said you hit a drone?” The pilot replied, “I think so.” After relaying this to ATC, the pilots took additional time to assess the incident further, saying, “We may be returning to the field. Stand by. We’ll get back to you here.” The pilot further stated, “United 1003, we’re gonna need some vectors to figure out what’s going on. We may have hit a drone. We’re trying to figure out what happened.”

After assessing the situation, and out of an abundance of caution, the pilots returned to San Francisco to determine if any damage had been done to the aircraft.

The aircraft landed without further incident around 30 minutes after take off. No further information is available related to any damage or suspected damage to the aircraft, and no statements regarding the incident have been released by United Airlines or the Federal Aviation Administration as of the date of this article. According to records from FlightRadar24, the aircraft (N37535) was back in service the next day.

Click on the attached YouTube video for radio traffic between ATC and the pilots involved in the incident.

Unfortunately… this is becoming more common

Reports of near misses between suspected drones and aircraft are becoming more common. A recent UK Airpox Board report documented a British Airways plane carrying 180 passengers narrowly avoiding a collision with a drone over Kent. The Airbus A321, en route from Athens, Greece, to London Heathrow, was traveling at a speed exceeding 250mph and an altitude of 9,600ft during the incident. This near-miss is believed to be one of the closest encounters between a BA aircraft and an illegally-operated drone.

The incident occurred shortly before 4:30 pm on January 3, as the airplane was entering a holding stack approximately six miles south of Sevenoaks, awaiting clearance to join the final approach into Heathrow Airport.

The drone was being operated at a height 24 times greater than the typical legal maximum for drones, just 400ft.

Earlier this year, the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office (Florida) reported a Leading Edge Helicopter Tours helicopter collided with a drone in the vicinity of the Daytona Beach Flea Market in Florida. Although the helicopter managed to land safely, its rotor blade sustained approximately $60,000 worth of damage. Unfortunately, the drone involved in the collision was destroyed.

The drone operator explained that he was utilizing a DJI Mavic 2 Pro to capture video footage for a construction company at approximately 180 feet. While focused on his tablet, he heard a loud impact and realized his drone was no longer airborne.

Will Congress Take Any Action?

It has been almost five and a half years since Congress passed any meaningful counter-UAS legislation- the Preventing Emerging Threats Act, included with the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018. The Act provided authority to the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security to use a wide range of detection and mitigation technologies and techniques that would otherwise be illegal under federal law.

To ensure the safety and security of the national airspace, our nation’s critical infrastructure, people, and assets, Congress must take action to provide authority to law enforcement and critical infrastructure to use technologies and techniques not currently available.

Do you want to understand what technologies are used in the counter-UAS mission? Read Is drone detection technology part of a counter-drone system? to gain insight from organizations and individuals with real-world first-hand experience conducting this important security mission.

See the C-UAS Hub Airport Sector page for additional news, articles, and resources on airports and aerodromes.

Post Image- Flight path of UA 1003 in the early morning hours of March 23rd, 2024, after the pilot reported the aircraft had hit a drone. (Image Credit: FlightRadar24)