FBI inquires as Alitalia 777 encounters remote-piloted aircraft

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US FBI investigators are searching for the operator of an unmanned aircraft which came into close proximity with an Alitalia Boeing 777-200 on final approach into New York JFK.

The aircraft had been arriving from Rome, approaching the airport from the east over Long Beach, at around 18:05 on 4 March.

One of the JFK tower controllers queried a transmission of Alitalia flight AZ608, which was operating under the callsign Alitalia 60U, and inbound from the east over Long Beach.

"We saw a drone, a drone aircraft," says a voice on the air traffic control recording of the incident, although it is unclear whether this is the pilot or another controller clarifying the pilot's comment.

The FBI's New York field office says the pilot observed a small, unmanned aircraft while about 3nm from runway 31R, and that it came within 200ft of the 777.

Controllers asked the pilot the altitude at which he had seen the aircraft, and he responded: "About 1,500[ft]."

A few seconds later the tower then issued a caution to approaching aircraft, saying it had received a "report of a drone about 5nm final".

Controllers contacted other inbound flights to see whether other pilots could see or identify the intruder.

At about 18:07 the crew of a Lufthansa Airbus A330, operating flight LH400, responded: "Negative, we didn't see anything here."

The Alitalia 777 landed safely, within a couple of minutes of the sighting, but the tower continued to question other pilots.

"Do you see any other aircraft out there?" the controller asked the crew of Delta Air Lines flight 1368, which had been approaching JFK from the south.

"One on the runway, that's it," the crew replied.

Some 20min after the sighting the tower was still asking for more information, saying that the "drone aircraft" had "four propellers, apparently". But subsequent pilot transmissions came back negative.

The FBI says the aircraft was described as black, and no more than 3ft across. It adds that the incident occurred at about 1,750ft, and investigators are "looking to identify and locate the aircraft and its operator".

FBI special agent in charge John Giacalone says: "Our paramount concern is the safety of aircraft passengers and crew."

Radio communications about the incident were captured on the air traffic control recording website LiveATC.

Investigators have not indicated whether the aircraft might be a remote-controlled mode. The availability of miniature camera technology has previously led to incidents in which models have been flown close to commercial aircraft flightpaths.