OTTAWA — Two CF-18 fighter jets were scrambled into the skies over Ottawa after reports of a large drone flying near commercial jets, the Toronto Star has learned.
The fighters were dispatched from their base in Bagotville, Que., and were quickly over the nation’s capital after the pilots of two arriving airliners spotted the unmanned aerial vehicle during their approach into Ottawa’s airport on May 25.
While the presence of drones has become increasingly common over Canadian cities, scrambling fighter jets to intercept them is a rare occurrence, suggesting this incident jangled nerves among security officials.
“What we’re concerned with from a NORAD perspective, obviously, is any unidentified aircraft,” said Maj. Steve Neta, senior public affairs officer for the North American Aerospace Defence Command Canadian region headquarters.
“It’s a relatively new phenomenon . . . something that everyone is trying to deal with and to address. It’s certainly not common for us, from a NORAD perspective either.
“The risk that these things could pose to aircraft, considering a large airliner approaching an airport . . . is significant.”
Neta could not say why fighter jets were deployed in this incident. But the fact it was a large drone, flying over the nation’s capital probably all factored into the decision to scramble the jets.
“It’s something that we’re definitely taking very seriously,” he said.
Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau said the incident underscores growing worries about the proliferation of drones in Canadian skies.
“We are hearing more and more from pilots . . . that they are spotting drones at different altitudes near airports,” Garneau told the Star Tuesday.
The airspace around Ottawa airport — like most major airports in the country — is controlled by air traffic controllers to ensure the safe separation of aircraft.
As well, some airspace in the Ottawa area is barred to low-flying aircraft because of security concerns, such as over the Parliament buildings, Rideau Hall, the prime minister’s cottage retreat in Quebec’s Gatineau Hills, and the secret training facility for JTF2, Canada’s special forces soldiers.
While it’s not clear whether the drone violated any of that restricted airspace, it had no authorization to fly into the airspace overseen by air traffic controllers.
The pilots of an arriving WestJet Boeing 737 were the first to report the aerial intruder at 2,042 metres during their descent into Ottawa airport.
“Just to let you know that we just flew pretty close to a drone,” the pilots told the controller, according to a recording available on LiveATC.net.
About 11 minutes later, the controller alerts the pilots of an Air Canada jet arriving from Toronto about the drone, telling them of a target he’s got on radar.
“Type and altitude unknown. It might be that drone,” the controller said.
“Thanks for the heads up,” the Air Canada pilot replied
The controller called with another warning a few minutes later — the target is now 1.2 km off the left wing of the Air Canada Airbus A320 jet.
“I see him there now. Yeah, a couple of thousand feet below me and yeah, I can see the drone,” the Air Canada pilot replied.
It was soon after that last report that the CF-18s — on standby as part of their duties for North American air defence — were scrambled from Bagotville.
“They did go over Ottawa to investigate the reported area where the drone was reportedly spotted. They did a pretty thorough search of the area and weren’t able to find anything,” Neta said.
“Our fighters were not able to make any positive identification.”
With an hourly operating cost of about $8,700, the price tag to scramble the two fighters for the 90-minute mission would have clocked in at about $26,000.
The incident was turned over to the RCMP for follow-up.
Garneau said the department is moving on two fronts to counter the possible risks of drone flights.
“We’re working very hard to put in place not only the education but also the regulation. This is something that has exploded all over the world,” the minister said.
Transport Canada laid out a proposal to regulate drones last year. The rules would apply to drones weighing 25kg or less and would set out requirements to have the drones marked with a four-letter registration for identification. It would also require training for those operating them.
The federal regulator says growing sales of drones have given rise to “novice pilots” who are in the dark about aviation rules and lack the knowledge to operate the devices safely.
Those operating drones heavier than 25kg are currently required to get special authorization from Transport Canada.
In the meantime, Transport Canada is educating drone operators about existing rules. Those include not operating them within nine kilometres of an airport, not flying them higher than 90 metres, not allow them to travel beyond line-of-sight.