The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are probing an Alitalia pilot’s claim that a small, unmanned aircraft flew past John F. Kennedy airport Monday afternoon.
“We saw a drone, a drone aircraft,” the pilot said, according to audio posted on the website LiveATC.net, which aggregates air traffic communications.
The pilot reportedly spotted the unmanned aerial vehicle as he was preparing to land at 1:15 pm Monday, but was able to touch down normally and did not have to take any special measures to avoid it, CNN reports.
FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown told the cable news network that the “drone” would have been cruising “approximately four to five miles west of the airport at an altitude of approximately 1,500 feet” — so somewhere over Brooklyn.
Air traffic controllers alerted other pilots to the sighting at the time; at least two pilots said they did not notice any unmanned aircraft.
An FBI spokesman says the pilot claims the aircraft was about one meter long, the Associated Press reports. A reporter for 1010 WINS news radio spoke to an airport shuttle bus driver who said he often sees kids flying model aircrafts in the area. “I see it many times,” the driver reportedly said. “Sometimes, I see them flying so high.”
If this aircraft was being used for recreational purposes, then it may have been flying at an altitude that was beyond the legal limit, according to CNN:
For recreational hobbyists, flying remote-controlled planes is only allowed by the FAA up to 400 feet in the air, and within sight of the operator. If they are going to fly within three miles of an airport, they have to let air traffic controllers know.
These sightings may become more common as more law enforcement, public agencies, and businesses start using the military spying vehicles in the civilian sphere. Lev Grossman explains in his TIME magazine cover story “Drone Home”:
Drones will carry pizzas across towns and drugs across borders. They’ll spot criminals on the run and naked celebrities in their homes. They’ll get cheaper to buy and easier to use. What will the country look like when anybody with $50 and an iPhone can run a surveillance drone?
UPDATE: The FBI is asking for the public’s help in tracking down the unmanned aircraft — described as black and about three feet wide with four propellers, according to a Mar. 5 statement from the agency.