Plane spotters are risking catastrophe by flying drones close to airports to capture mid-air footage of aircraft landing, pilots warn.

A drone was used to film aircraft bound for Heathrow and almost hit a passenger jet 2,500ft above London, according to an official report.

Near-miss investigators said that the large black device was being flown next to a flight path east of the airport when the incident happened in June, endangering an Airbus A319, which usually carries 124 passengers.

Drones were being used for the same reason on the approach to other big UK airports, pilots said.

Drone users have been prosecuted in China and Israel this year after being caught filming aircraft in the air.

A 20-year-old man was arrested near Sde Dov airport in Tel Aviv in July when he used a drone to film airliners and then posted the video on YouTube.

The Heathrow incident emerged as figures showed that drones and balloons had come close to hitting 51 aircraft in the first six months of this year, including 12 incidents ranked as category A, the highest risk of a collision.

It suggests that the number of near-misses is likely to eclipse the record total set last year, when 69 incidents involving drones and aircraft were recorded.

Ministers have set out plans to end the drone menace, including compulsory registration and a safety test for buyers of drones weighing 250g to enable police to trace the owners.

The move coincided with research published by the Department for Transport which showed that a drone weighing 400g – which would include most of the bestselling, powerful models – would be capable of damaging the windscreen of a helicopter.

A much bigger drone weighing 2kg could “critically damage” the windscreen of a passenger aircraft.

The UK Airprox Board, which logs near misses, said that the pilot of an A319 spotted a drone 50cm wide just over half a mile ahead of the plane as it approached Heathrow at 3.50pm on June 17.

“The pilot stated that due to its location, he suspected the drone was being used to film aircraft landing at Heathrow,” the report said.

It added: “The drone was being flown in the vicinity of an airfield approach path such that it was endangering other aircraft at that location and altitude.”

The board logged 14 near misses between aircraft and suspected drones in its latest monthly report, including four incidents near Heathrow.

Steve Landells, a flight safety specialist at the British Airline Pilots’ Association, told The Times: “We suspect that some users may be flying drones close to airports in an effort to get footage of planes taking off and landing but, due to the difficulty in catching the operators to question them, we can’t know for sure.

“This is why we support the Department for Transport’s recent announcement of a registration scheme, which would aid in catching those behaving irresponsibly and educating users in the dangers of flying near aircraft.

“We want to make sure everyone understands these rules and if someone should break them, we want police to be able to prosecute the operator.”

Under Civil Aviation Authority rules, devices must be flown no higher than 120m. They must also stay within 500m of the drone operator and keep 150m away from people and property.