UPDATE 1-U.S. passenger jet nearly collided with drone in March -FAA

Fri May 9, 2014 7:22pm EDT

(Adds FAA comment, details about the aircraft)

By Alwyn Scott

NEW YORK May 9 (Reuters) - An American Airlines Group Inc aircraft almost collided with a drone above Florida earlier this year, a near-accident that highlights the growing risk from rising use of unmanned aircraft, the U.S. air safety regulator said.

The pilot reported seeing a small, remote-control aircraft very close to his plane while preparing to land at Tallahassee Regional Airport, said Jim Williams, manager of the Federal Aviation Administration's Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Office.

"The airplane pilot said that the UAS was so close to his jet that he was sure he had collided with it," Williams said at an industry conference on Thursday, referring to an unmanned aircraft system.

The aircraft, operated by an American subsidiary, did not appear to be damaged when it was inspected after the March 22 incident, Williams said.

But the incident served to highlight the risk of remote-control aircraft, he said.

"The risk for a small UAS to be ingested into a passenger airline engine is very real," Williams said. "The results could be catastrophic."

The FAA currently bans the commercial use of drones in the United States and is under growing pressure to set rules that would permit their broader use. Hobby and many law-enforcement uses are permitted.

Last year, the agency began establishing test sites where businesses can try out commercial uses. Two of the centers have started working ahead of schedule.

"The FAA is working aggressively to ensure the safe integration of unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace," the agency said in a statement.

The March incident was reported to the Tallahassee control tower by the pilot for Bluestreak Airlines, a US Airways commuter carrier. US Airways is part of American Airlines.

The plane, a Bombardier CRJ-200, was a traveling from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Tallahassee.

It was at 2,300 feet and about five miles from the airport when it encountered the remote controlled jet. The FAA investigated but could not identify the pilot of the drone.

American said it is "aware of the published report alleging an incident with one of our express flights and we are investigating."

The airline said it would share any information with the FAA and would not comment further.

The incident was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

In his address to the Small Unmanned Systems Business Expo in San Francisco, Williams also showed videos of several drone accidents, including one in which a drone crashed into a crowd during the running of the bulls in Richmond, Virginia, last fall.

The crash was caused by a battery failure and resulted in minor injuries, he said.

Williams also noted the "Miracle on the Hudson," in which birds hit the engine of a flight leaving New York, prompting an emergency landing on the river.

"Imagine a metal-and-plastic object, especially that big lithium battery, going into a high-speed turbine engine," he said. (Reporting by Alwyn Scott; Editing by Diane Craft)