It's rare to see things flying outside your airplane window. A far off craft, a flock of birds — whatever else is zooming through the clouds at high speeds is going to feel a little dangerous. So when an Alitalia pilot made his final approach to New York's JFK airport on Monday afternoon, he was certainly startled to see another little plane flying near by. Here's an excerpt of the resulting talk with the air traffic controller:
JFK controller: Uh, what did you see?
Alitalia pilot: We saw a drone, a drone aircraft
JFK controller: What altitude did you see that aircraft?
Alitalia pilot: About 1,500 feet.
Within an hour, the Federal Bureau of Investigation issued request for the public's help in finding the drone's operator. To the bureau's credit, they chose not to repeat the Alitalia pilot's "drone" designation, choosing instead to go with the slightly less militaristic "unmanned aircraft." Nobody called it a "model airplane."
The FBI is still looking for the miniature UFO. "The FBI is investigating the incident and looking to identify and locate the aircraft and its operator," reads a press release. "The unnamed aircraft was described as black in color and no more than three feet wide with four propellers."
Perhaps it looks a little something like this radio-controlled quadrocopter, the kind that hobbyists have been falling in love with lately?
The FBI cut out that "unmanned aircraft" business when it took to Twitter to do some witness recruiting. "Anyone with information on the
#drone near #JFK yesterday can remain anonymous," the bureau tweeted, along with the phone number of a tipline.
While the wording of the press release was undeniably carefully selected, Twitter is a little more slapdash. That is, the bureau's social media intern—or whomever controls that feed—probably didn't think twice about how tweeting a scary word like "drone" to neary 20,000 people sends everybody's mind to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the U.S. military has been carrying out missions of questionable legality and killing terrorists, some of whom are U.S. citizens. They've killed their fair share of civilians, too.
The "drone" over Brooklyn was certainly not a Predator.
The difference in wording seems slight, but the connotation is significant. It would be one thing if the FBI asked the public's help finding a hobbyist whose remote-controlled aircraft flew too high. (The Federal Aviation Administration allows unregistered aircraft to fly up to 400 feet above ground.) It's an entirely different matter when they say drone. Of course, onus for identifying the aircraft as a drone falls on the Alitalia pilot. Based on his accent and his employer, we're guessing that English is not his native language, and it's more likely that he's heard the word drone than remote-controlled quadrcopter.
From a 30,000-foot point of view, Tuesday morning's scare in the air is just the latest sign that the drone era has arrived and will be taking over our lives in increasingly local ways. Just a couple of hours after the JFK incident, a letter from Attorney General Eric Holder to the press detailed the Obama adminstration's policy on drone strikes in the United States. Holder said that the government had no intention of carrying out drone strikes on U.S. soil, but he could "imagine an extraordinary circumstance" that would necessitate a domestic strike.
As far as anybody knows, the lone quadrocopter (or whatever it was) in Brooklyn was not a domestic strike. It was probably not a military aircraft. All signs point to a daring hobbyist having a fun afternoon. More broadly speaking, all signs point to America hearing a lot more reports like this as the hobby grows.
Lead image via Flickr