A British Airways plane descending onto Heathrow Airport on Sunday struck an object thought to be a drone, prompting London police to immediately investigate.
The Airbus A320 flight from Geneva, Switzerland, which contained 132 passengers and five crew members, was hit by the suspected drone as it approached the airport at 12:50 BST, the Metropolitan Police said.
The Airbus pilot told officials that a potential drone came into contact with the plane, but arrests have not been made. If the incident is a confirmed drone hit, it will be the first of its kind in the United Kingdom.
The plane landed safely and was cleared for its next flight, airport officials said.
"Safety and security are always our first priority," Heathrow Airport said in a statement. "We will give the police every assistance with their investigation."
Officers are currently speaking to a pilot who has reported a drone flying very close to his aircraft on approach to Heathrow. 1/2 CAD1
— Aviation Policing (@MPSHeathrow) April 17, 2016
2/2 This is dangerous, it is also a crime. Please be aware of the rules before you start flying a drone. https://t.co/jMiDJkJb6Y — Aviation Policing (@MPSHeathrow) April 17, 2016
A spokesperson from Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said that it is completely unacceptable to fly drones near airports.
Existing regulations forbid drones from being flown above 400 feet (122 meters) or near crowds of people and buildings. Anyone who breaks the rules can face serious penalties such as imprisonment of up to five years.
Flight safety expert Steve Landells told The Telegraph that a drone strike such as this suspected incident can happen in only a matter of time, especially given the large numbers of drones being used by amateurs who do not understand the risks of flying the devices.
Landells said further education of drone users and strict enforcement of rules are required to make sure that skies are safe from drone threat.
Meanwhile, although the potential threat of drone strikes have been well-researched, there is little data to show how much damage a drone could inflict upon airplanes, according to the British Airline Pilots Association.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) warned in January that drones used by the public are "a real and growing threat" to civilian airplanes.
From January 2013 up to June 2015, there had been about 856 reports of "remotely piloted" aircraft systems near airports and airliners, the IATA said. Nearly 90 percent of the reports were from North American sources.
The United States' Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) revealed in late March that there have been more than 600 instances of drone sightings near airplanes over the last five months.
Last year, the FAA launched a registry for recreational and non-commercial unmanned drones, and an estimated 406,000 people signed up since December 2015.
Photo: Eric Salard | Flickr