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FAA records show hundreds of close calls between airplanes, drones

On Sunday, a swarm of small rogue drones disrupted air traffic across the country on a scale previously unseen in U.S. skies.

At 8:51 a.m., a white drone startled the pilot of a JetBlue flight, appearing off its left wing moments before it landed at Los Angeles International Airport. Five hours later, a quadcopter whizzed underneath an Allegiant Air flight as it approached the same runway. Elsewhere in California, pilots of light aircraft reported narrowly dodging drones in San Jose and La Verne.

In Washington, a Cessna pilot reported a drone cruising at 1,500 feet in highly restricted airspace over the nation's capital, forcing the U.S. military to scramble fighter jets as a precaution. In Louisville, a silver-and-white drone almost collided with a training aircraft. In Chicago, United Airlines Flight 970 reported seeing a drone pass by at an altitude of 3,500 feet.

All told, 12 episodes were recorded Sunday of small drones interfering with airplanes or coming too close to airports, including other incidents in New Mexico, Texas, Illinois, Florida and North Carolina, according to previously undisclosed reports filed with the Federal Aviation Administration.

Before last year, close encounters with rogue drones were unheard of. But as a result of a sales boom, small, largely unregulated remote-control aircraft are clogging U.S. airspace, snarling air traffic and giving the FAA fits.

Pilots have reported a surge in close calls with drones: nearly 700 incidents so far this year, according to FAA statistics, about triple the number recorded for all of 2014. The agency has acknowledged growing concern about the problem and its inability to do much to tame it.

So far, the FAA has kept basic details of most of this year's incidents under wraps, declining to release reports that are ordinarily public records and that would spotlight where and when the close calls occurred.

The Washington Post obtained several hundred of the rogue-drone reports from a government official who objected to the FAA's secrecy. Laura Brown, an FAA spokeswoman, declined to comment on the reports obtained by the newspaper.

The documents show that remote-control planes are penetrating some of the most guarded airspace in the country.

Drones also have continued to pose a headache for Secret Service agents seeking to protect the president, according to the FAA reports.

On March 29, the Secret Service reported that a rogue drone was hovering near a West Palm Beach golf course where President Barack Obama was hitting the links. Secret Service spokesman Brian Leary confirmed the incident. He said the Secret Service "has procedures and protocols in place to address these situations when they occur."

The episode occurred after a widely reported scare in January, when a small quadcopter drone crashed on the White House grounds, briefly triggering a lockdown and reinforcing concerns about security at the executive mansion.

U.S. officials have said they are growing more concerned about the possibility that terrorists might seek to use small drones.

No incident has resulted in a midair collision. But in dozens of cases, pilots reported that drones flew within 500 feet of their aircraft, a distance so close that they usually had no time to react.

Most of the drones were described as small and likely weighing only a few pounds, according to the reports. Aviation-safety experts say that even tiny drones could trigger a disaster by crashing into a propeller or windshield, or getting sucked into a jet engine.

Small drones have become hugely popular with consumers who fly them for recreation. Many models come equipped with sophisticated video cameras yet retail for less than $500 and can be flown with little or no training.

The Consumer Electronics Association estimates that hobbyists will buy 700,000 of the aircraft in the United States this year.

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