Sullenberger: Drones likely to cause airplane accidents

The increasing availability of drones is all but certain to cause an airplane accident, in part because it's difficult to catch people in the act of flying the small unmanned devices, CBS News aviation and safety expert Chesley Sullenberger said Sunday.

"We've seen what a six-pound or an eight-pound bird can do to bring down an airplane," Sullenberger said on "Face the Nation," a nod to the flock of birds that knocked out both of his engines and forced him to land a plane in the Hudson River in 2009. "Imagine what a device containing hard parts like batteries and motors can do that might weigh 25 or possibly up to 55 pounds to bring down an airplane. It's not a matter of if it will happen. It's a matter of when it will happen."

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of unmanned aircraft flying near commercial planes, and in some cases, pilots have had to alter their courses to avoid a collision. Sullenberger said the devices are becoming ubiquitous because they are relatively cheap and easy to procure, but that it "allows people to do stupid, reckless, dangerous things with abandon."

"I'm heartened that the aviation and the legal authorities have raised the penalties for doing these things. Unfortunately, the essential element that's still missing is the certainty of prosecution because it's been difficult to catch them in the act. This must stop," he said.

The pilot also weighed in on the recent discovery of a wing flap suspected to be from the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 jet near the French island of Reunion.

"We shouldn't make too many judgments about one single piece of debris any more than we would expect to discover why an entire house fell down by looking at one piece of lumber," Sullenberger said. But he added that a century of knowledge about metals and structures would allow investigators to draw some conclusions about what kind of forces affected the metal and the speed and energy of the impact.

He said investigators are "writing a true life, non-fiction detective story of hundreds of pages. And right now, we're probably on page five."

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.