An ABC11 I-Team investigation reviewed 1,699 such reports filed by pilots across the country, including 38 in North Carolina airspace. The mid-air sightings vary in altitude, but all are well above what's legal for drones, which are generally limited to flying under 400 feet.
David Reid, a commercial pilot with more than 30 years experience, told the I-Team his own near-miss with a drone was "not the adrenaline I was looking for."
"It's extremely dangerous because most of the encounters happen at a low altitude where planes are either taking off or landing," Reid warns to ABC11. "The landing is going to be the most critical phase because as you're coming in, approaching the airport at 120 miles per hour if something catastrophic happens in the cockpit, there's no time to react."
Among the reported sightings in North Carolina:
*July 27, 2017 - USAF F-15 reports a red drone at 2,000 feet four and a half miles north of Kinston. The fighter jet was on its way to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.
*August 5, 2017 - American Airlines A319 jet observes "shiny black UAS (unmanned aircraft system) while on approach for runway at Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT) at 3,500 feet.
*August 9, 2017 - Delta Airlines CRJ-900 regional jet, on approach to Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) reports "a black drone, 3-4ft, flying northbound at 7,300 feet" over Henderson Airport in Granville County.
"They're not following the rules," Reid said of drone pilots. "It's like having drunk drivers out on the highway. They're not following the rules and they've become a huge safety factory."
By law, all drone operators must register their drone with the FAA. The North Carolina Department of Transportation's aviation office counts 28,346 drones in North Carolina; 24,510 for recreation and 3,854 for commercial or government purposes. Beginners can use drones to race, take overhead pictures or just have fun. Experts can fly them for surveying agriculture, public safety and construction, among other industries.
"People get these drones, they think of it as a toy that they can do what they want with it," said James Pearce with NCDOT Aviation. "The technology is so new, it's not ingrained into people yet, and it's so available. Anybody can go and get a drone. So you think if this is so easy to get - it can't be dangerous at all."
The NCDOT is spending more than $10,000 on advertising campaigns, specifically on social media, to help get the message out about drone safety and drone laws.
"The point is that we give people easy to follow steps," said Pearce. "As long as you are doing these things, you are being safe and you're being legal with your flight.
Some of the regulations differ for those who fly drones for hobbies and who fly drones for commercial or government purposes. The NCDOT lists these as general guidelines for all drone operators:
*Always fly below an altitude of 400 feet, and fly within your direct line of sight.
*Be aware of FAA airspace requirements.
*Do not fly near stadiums, public events, or directly over people.
*Do not fly near aircraft, especially near airports.
*Do not fly near emergency response efforts such as fires or hurricane recovery efforts.
*Do not fly at night.
*Do not fly a UAS/drone that weighs more than 55 pounds.
For commercial users, there are even more regulations.
The person operating a small UAS must either hold a remote pilot airman certificate with a small UAS rating or be under the direct supervision of a person who does hold a remote pilot certificate (remote pilot in command).
As for enforcement of these laws, the I-Team reached out to several police departments and sheriff's offices in the Triangle, and most had no reports of officers or deputies issuing citations for illegal drone use.
The problem, they lament, is the challenge of time: a pilot calls in a drone sighting to Air Traffic Control, which then alerts a local law enforcement agency, but usually without a pinpoint location of the drone operator holding the remote control.
By the time the officer arrives on scene, the pilot may be long gone and there is no way to confirm the specific drone (and serial number) with the one seen from the cockpit.