WASHINGTON, D.C. — Federal officials believe a small aircraft that reportedly looked like a drone and flew close to a landing airliner at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York was probably a model aircraft sent aloft from Long Island.
Whatever the object, the FBI and the Federal Aviation Administration issued a public alert Tuesday seeking assistance in identifying the operator and the aircraft, which a nearby pilot described as “black in color and no more than 3 feet wide with four propellers.”
It was spotted about 1:15 p.m. Monday by the pilot of Alitalia Flight 608 as it approached runway 31R at JFK. The pilot radioed, “We saw a drone, a drone aircraft!” He said the aircraft had an altitude of about 1,500 feet and was about three miles from his plane. That would put it well past the 400-foot height restriction and far too close to the airport.
Law enforcement officials speculate that the craft had drifted off, or the operator lost control somewhere along the south shore of Long Island, and it wafted toward the airport, one of the nation’s busiest for international flights.
“Our paramount concern is the safety of aircraft passengers and crew,” said John Giacalone, the FBI’s special agent-in-charge in New York.
At the FAA in Washington, the immediate worry was a breach of airspace.
“Regardless of whether you’re operating as a public agency or a person flying a model aircraft for recreational purposes, you always have to give way to any other aircraft in the vicinity,” said Les Dorr, an FAA spokesman.
“You’re not supposed to be flying over a major airport.”
Because no flight plan was filed with the air traffic tower at JFK, authorities believe it probably was sent up by a hobbyist flying a remote-controlled aircraft. “We’ve got no reason not to believe the Alitalia pilot that it was a drone,” one FBI agent said.