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A model of a 1960s-era Phantom jet, from the U.S. Attorney's Office in Massachusetts. The model allegedly belonged to Rezwan Ferdaus, who was arrested on September 28, 2011 on charges of planning to fly explosive-packed, remote controlled airplanes into the Pentagon and the Capitol in Washington, authorities said. / - AFP/Getty Images/U.S. Attorney's Office

A US Airways commuter flight nearly collided with a drone in March near the airport in Tallahassee, Fla., according to a Federal Aviation Administration official.

Jim Williams, head of the FAA's unmanned aircraft office, told a conference that the pilot of a regional US Airways flight saw a camouflage-painted drone fly so close to the airliner that "he was sure he had collided with it."

The incident, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, happened March 22 above Tallahassee Regional Airport.

"He reported what appeared to be a small, remotely piloted aircraft at approximately 2,300 feet in the air," Williams said Thursday at the Small Unmanned Systems Business Exposition in San Francisco.

Inspection of the airliner after landing found no damage.

"The risk for a small (drone) to be ingested into a passenger airline engine is very real," Williams said. "The results could be catastrophic."

A US Airways flight out of New York's LaGuardia airport was brought down in 2009 by geese that flew into the engines, in an incident nicknamed the Miracle on the Hudson, Williams noted.

The FAA wasn't able to identify either the drone, which had a piston engine and resembled an F-4 Phantom jet, or its pilot involved in the March incident. The incident involved PSA Airlines Flight 4650, a CRJ-200 aircraft, which operated as a US Airways commuter flight from Charlotte, N.C.

The FAA said it is working aggressively to develop rules for drones, with six designated test sites to resolve questions about ensuring safe flights with airliners. Anyone flying a drone within five miles of an airport is supposed to notify the airport and the air-traffic control facility, the FAA said.

"The FAA has the authority to pursue enforcement action against operators who endanger the safety of the national airspace system," the agency said. "The FAA has the exclusive authority to regulate the airspace from the ground up, and a mandate to protect the safety of the American people in the air and on the ground."

The FAA is developing rules for drone operation under a congressional deadline of September 2015. Some the issues that regulators must resolve are how to ensure that pilots of drones and passenger planes know where aircraft are and that they remain separated.

"The risk from unmanned aircraft is not limited to just people on the ground," Williams said.

American Airlines, the parent of US Airways, is aware of the published report and is investigating the incident, according to spokesman Matt Miller.

"The safety of our passengers and crew is our top priority," Miller said. "Any information will be shared with the FAA as part of our normal procedures, and we will not comment on any matter that may be under investigation."



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Airline flight had close call with drone in March

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