Hot Air Balloon Flight

Drifting through Napa Sacramento Valley by balloon.

Napa Valley Balloons
These guys are the best in the business: professional, safety-conscious, and fun!

As I mentioned in a recent blog post about Thursday’s helicopter flight through Napa Valley, I’d been invited to take a spot on a hot air balloon flight with Napa Valley Balloons, Inc. on Friday morning out of Yountville (just north of Napa). I actually did the flight on Friday as planned. Well, sort of.

I was invited to fly by Bob, the pilot I’d met a few weeks before at the airport where I’m currently living in the Sacramento area. Bob had landed with his passengers in what I consider my “backyard” here — the ramp I can see from the back window of my RV. I’d taken some photos of his landing and had sent the best one to him. He said he’d try to get me on a future flight; I told him I’d take him and two friends up in my helicopter. After too many windy days, the weather had finally calmed down and I was scheduled for the first flight with an opening: Friday, March 21.

I got my confirmation with instructions via email. All passengers were supposed to meet at Domaine Chandon in Yountville at 6:30 AM. Google Maps told me that was about an hour away. And because I don’t like to be late to anything, I gave it an extra half hour of drive time. That meant leaving at 5 AM.

I’m an early riser and didn’t have any trouble making that departure time. With my first cup of coffee in a travel mug, I put Penny and her breakfast into the truck and we headed out.

I’d just passed the exit for Winters when my cell phone rang. It was Bob. “Don’t leave yet,” he told me. “I think there’s fog in the valley. We might depart from Winters instead.”

“I just passed Winters,” I told him.

“Wow. You’re running early. Why don’t you hang out there and I’ll let you know when I have a better handle on the weather.”

We hung up and I gave it some thought. It was dark out, but I could clearly see the moon and stars. No fog here. But also no place to just “hang out.” I kept driving, thinking of maybe pulling over in Vacaville, which was coming up. I could see the rotating beacon of the airport there, Nut Tree. Maybe I could find a coffee shop close to the freeway to wait at?

But then I started thinking about how long it would take me to continue the drive if Bob gave me the green light to keep coming. I didn’t want to be the last one to arrive. And I was hoping to see them inflate the balloons. I’d keep going and, if I had to drive back to Winters, I’d do it with them.

So I kept going.

I was just entering Napa when I started seeing the low clouds of a marine layer creeping into the valley. Still clear overhead. I called Bob.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “It’s a tough call. The crew and passengers are still meeting at Chandon.”

“I’ll be there in 10 minutes,” I told him. “No bother if I have to drive back. I don’t want to hold anyone up.”

We hung up again.

I pulled into the Chandon driveway at 6 AM and followed the signs to the parking area. I took Penny for a quick walk before following more signs to the reception area. I’d been to Domaine Chandon years before — probably on my very first trip to Napa Valley with my future wasband. My memory of the place did not match the grand establishment I was at that morning. Gardens, ponds, fountains, patios, catering rooms. The place was huge and, even in the dark, impressive. I looked forward to seeing it in the daylight.

I was the first passenger to arrive. I signed in and signed a waiver, grabbed a cup of coffee and a tiny croissant, and then chatted with the two receptionist and the pilots as they arrived. Bob was no where in sight, probably still trying to figure out whether it would be clear enough to fly.

The answer came with a phone call to one of the pilots who then began briefing the 40 or so passengers who had arrived. Safety first, legal matters second. Bob had determined that the flying conditions in Napa that morning were neither safe nor legal. We’d be departing from Winters, in the Sacramento Valley.

While the passenger briefing continued, I asked one of the pilots where they were departing from in Winters. He showed me on Google Maps on my phone. Bob’s crew and the other two crews were already enroute with plans to have the balloons fully inflated when the rest of the passengers arrived in the shuttle vans.

Apparently, I wouldn’t see Domaine Chandon in the daylight that day after all.

I got directions, told the pilot and crew in the reception area that I’d go on ahead, and left. Before I left, one of the receptionists gave me two Chandon bags. I could tell there was a bottle in one of them. Consolation prize for missing breakfast with the rest of the passengers. How nice!

Sunrise
I got to see the sun rise through the marine layer on my way back.

It was a quick drive back. The fog was settling in and, although it was high still over the highway, I could see that Bob had made a good call. As the sun came up through the marine layer, it was pretty obvious that low clouds were filling in the valley.

There was a balloon company setting up beside the freeway at the Winters exit. I called Bob, thinking they might have relocated. He said that was their competition. Before he could give me directions, I told him I knew where to go. I hung up, followed Google’s guidance, and wound up in a field north of town where crews were spreading out three large balloons.

Balloon Setup
The crews were already beginning to set up the balloons when I arrived.

I’d been ballooning twice before. The first time was at a balloon festival in New Jersey, back in the 1990s, before I’d moved to Arizona. My future wasband had taken his niece and me for a flight. It was a great experience in what was probably considered a medium balloon. I don’t remember there being many people in our basket. I do remember being in a crowd of brightly colored balloons ascending into the sky over southwestern New Jersey farmland. I remember drifting silently on the breeze over people’s backyards while dogs barked. I remember seeing a woman in her bathrobe coming out to ge the morning newspaper. I remember grabbing the leaves off the top of a tree. And I remember the loud rush of gas and flames as the pilot added heat to the balloon envelope to keep us afloat.

The second time had been much more recently and I’d honestly almost forgotten it. It was back in January 2012 when I did a charter job that also involved a balloon. (Long story.) It was a tethered flight out in the desert west of where I lived in Arizona at the time. I blogged about it here.

This was different. This was real ballooning with a real commercial balloon company and pilot. The basket and balloon were huge; the basket could hold 17 people, including the pilot, and the balloon had to be large enough to lift that. The basket was carried to the site in a large truck with a hydraulic lift gate in the back. It took a lot of brute strength to get it down and into position on the ground beside the empty balloon.

Balloon Setup
The baskets for these balloons are huge.

I put Penny on her leash and wandered over with my camera to watch.

If you’ve never seen a hot air balloon inflated, here’s how it’s done. They start by spreading out the empty balloon envelope on the ground. They lay the basket on its side beside the bottom of the balloon and fasten the balloon to the basket with a series of ropes and carabiners. Then they put out one or two large fans that are fastened to generators, fire up the generators, and use the fans to start pushing air into the balloons. One or two members of the crew hold the balloon open at the bottom for the air to go in.

Inflating the Balloon
Bob (left) and a crew member hold open the balloon while two large fans begin filling it with air.

Inside the Balloon
It’s odd seeing people walking inside the balloon as it is inflated.

Meanwhile, crew members work in and around the balloon to make sure all the rigging is properly organized and there aren’t any tangles. I’m sure they do other stuff, too. It’s actually quite odd to see them walking around inside the balloon as it’s being inflated.

At a certain point, the balloon has enough air in it to begin holding its shape. But that air is the same temperature as the rest of the air. The balloon won’t fly. It’s time to add hot air. The pilot lights up the burners and adds fuel to shoot flames into the balloon. The fans and generators are shut off and moved away. As the hot air enters, the balloon starts to rise.

Adding Heat to Balloon
Adding heat to the balloon completes the inflation and makes it rise. You can see the other two balloons also being inflated on the right side of this picture.

Me in a Balloon
Yes, that’s me in a balloon.

At some point, the balloon has enough lift to bring the basket to the upright position. That’s when it’s time to load up.

The passengers on our flight arrived during the inflation process. Most of them hung back, although a few came closer to take pictures. I snapped a photo of a couple for them. No one else seemed to want to get that close.

The basket had five compartments: one on each corner for passengers and one in the middle that ran from the front to the back of the basket for the pilot and the fuel canisters. Bob and the crew loaded us up with two couples in each compartment except mine; I shared with just two people. It was cosy but not crowded. A member of the ground crew took a photo of me just before we lifted off.

And then we were off the ground, drifting into the sky. Bob snapped a photo with a GoPro he had mounted off the balloon envelope.

Basket of People
Is this a great picture, or what? Gotta love those GoPros! Bob sent about a dozen shots and I like this one the best.

Balloon Lift Off
I took this photo of our companions still on the ground as we were lifting off; you can see our shadow on the right.

Balloon in Flight
I got this nice shot of one of our companion balloons not long after takeoff.

The flight was wonderful. If you’ve never been in a hot air balloon and you can scrape together the cost of a flight, you really owe it to yourself to do it. It’s a completely novel experience, floating above the ground with this massive structure above your head keeping you aloft. There’s nothing like it.

We were the first ones from our group off the ground, so Bob did most of the navigating — which meant climbing and descending to test the direction of the wind at different altitudes. When he’d find an altitude that took us in the direction he wanted to go, he’d stick to that altitude. We buzzed along in what seemed like a gentle breeze, sometimes reaching in excess of 10 miles per hour. We moved mostly south down the valley with our companions behind us and the balloons from the other company mostly out to the east.

Navigation seems to be the big challenge — and fun — for a balloon pilot. Bob decided to do a “splash and dash” — that’s when the balloon touches down gently in a body of water and then takes off quickly again. He aimed us for Putah Creek, where it ponds up just upstream from a small dam. It was amazing to see him home in on the small pond with nothing to steer with except the wind. We cleared the trees on one side of the pond, descended quickly, and splash! Some water came into the bottom of the basket, soaking our shoes as we climbed out. I looked straight down into the pond and shot two photos of our reflection as we continued drifting south.

Balloon Reflection
Here’s our reflection just after lifting off. That’s the edge of the basket in the bottom of the shot.

Balloon Reflection
Here’s another shot a few moments later when we were drifting away from the pond past the tops of the trees.

Splash
Here’s the second balloon from our group going for a splash and dash. Can you see the reflection of his basket in the pond surface?

We continued drifting mostly south for a while. Meanwhile, the ground crew had packed up and were chasing us on the ground. One of the crew members was driving my truck with Penny inside. Bob talked on the radio occasionally, suggesting potential landing zones. We passed them one by one, occasionally seeing the ground crew below us, my truck easily recognizable by the big white fuel transfer tank on the back.

Balloons in Flight
Here’s another shot of our companions.

Eventually, the flight had to end. We’d flown south nearly to I-80. There were a number of office complexes down below us that had plenty of room for landing. We wound up coming in on the grounds of a college campus in a very gentle breeze — so gentle, in fact, that the basket didn’t even tip when landing. We touched down several times — each time, Bob would say, “We’re not done yet.” — before coming to a rest against a curb on an empty cul de sac. Bob began deflating the balloon as the crew came out to grab ropes. The balloon fell gently to the ground ahead of our flight path.

Landing Zone
X marks the spot of our landing zone.

The passengers climbed out while the ground crew worked on getting the balloon and basket gathered up and loaded. Bob said goodbye and hurried off with half the passengers in one of the vans. They’d go back to Domaine Chandon for a champagne breakfast. I could have come along, but didn’t see any reason to be a burden. After all, I’d been a guest on the flight. Just experiencing that was enough for me.

Champagne
My parting gift from Friday’s flight.

I watched the ground crew work on the balloon for a while, then went back to the truck where Penny was waiting. I let her out for a little walk before we headed out. I stopped in Winters along the way and had a late breakfast at a sidewalk cafe.

I’d forgotten all about the two Chandon bags in the truck, but caught sight of them when I was getting out back at the airport where I’m living. I brought them inside and unwrapped a bottle of Chandon sparkling wine and a glass to toast with.

That champagne is chilling in the fridge right now.

Joy-Flying Over Napa Valley

Sometimes it’s nice to treat yourself to an afternoon out.

I went for a joy ride in my helicopter this afternoon.

I hadn’t been flying since last Wednesday when I finished my Part 135 check ride with an FAA inspector from South Dakota. The helicopter was sitting out on the ramp, blades tied down, gathering dust and then standing up to high winds for a week.

Torn Tie Down
Like the helicopter, the tie-downs are now 8 years old. A strong wind earlier this week tore this one.

One of the blade tie-downs had torn and, although it was still holding, I thought I should repair it. So I untied the blades, brought the tie-downs inside, and did some mending. I looked out the back window while I was on the phone with a client, talking about work this coming summer season back home in Washington. My helicopter sat there patiently in the afternoon’s gentle breeze, less than 200 feet away, waiting for me to tie down its blades again.

Or fly it.

So I flew it.

It was very warm this afternoon — in the high 70s here in the Sacramento area. Too warm for the black T-shirt and jeans I was wearing. So I slipped into a tank top and shorts before going out with Penny and my iPad and my GoPro camera.

Penny waited on her bed in the front passenger seat while I preflighted and added a half quart of oil. Then I snapped the camera into it’s “BellyCam” position, turned on its wifi, and climbed on board beside Penny. A short while later, the engine was running, the camera was recording video, and I was listening to classic rock through my Bose headset. I made a radio call to the empty sky around me, eased up the collective, and lifted gently off the ground. Then I was speeding across the runway only 10 feet off the ground, gathering momentum and climbing out into the California afternoon.

As usual when I’m joy-flying, I didn’t have a specific destination. I had some vague idea of flying down to Nut Tree airport (VCB) in Vacaville, which I’ve been told has a restaurant within walking distance. Thought I’d check it out as a possible destination for when my friend George gets back from Alaska and we take turns flying his gyro and my helicopter. But that destination was too close. I wanted to get out for at least 45 minutes. Maybe I’d stop there on my way back.

I wandered south along highway 505 and turned right at Winters. I was following the road that runs to Lake Solano County Park, where I’d gone paddling the previous Thursday, and beyond that to Lake Berryessa. I was flying into the sun, though, and I knew the video wouldn’t be much good. Would it capture any decent footage of that nice canyon going up to the Lake?

Apparently, it did.

Aerial View of Lake Solano Park
Here’s an aerial view of the Lake Solano County Park. You can see the dock where I put in my kayak last week. I paddled upstream (up in this photo) from there.

I followed the canyon up to the lake, keeping a sharp eye out for wires. There were power poles on the right side of the canyon, but none seemed to cross the canyon. I flew over the dam and headed up lake. The water level was low — California is suffering from a serious drought — but the hillsides were fresh and green from the rain we’d had two weeks ago. Without more rain, the grass would turn brown, possibly before it even got a chance to go to seed.

I saw cattle in the low lands along the lake and ranches up in the hills. Very picturesque.

I flew about halfway up the northeast side of the lake with the sun coming into the cabin from my left. Penny, who had been hot while we were flying into the sun — she hasn’t fully shed her heavy black winter coat — was now in partial shade, leaned back in her seat but still panting from the heat. I was comfortable in my summer clothes; I didn’t realize until I got home how much sun I’d gotten. (Next time I’ll wear shorter shorts and really work on my tan.)

Napa Valley Balloons
In Napa Valley? Want an amazing experience you’ll remember for the rest of your life? Fly with these guys.

I got the idea that I wanted to see Yountville from the air. About a month ago — the day after I arrived with the RV, in fact, a hot air balloon had landed in my “backyard” here — the airport ramp. I’d introduced myself to the pilot and sent him a copy of a picture I’d taken of him landing, along with a suggestion that we swap flights. He booked me on a flight tomorrow morning at Yountville, at the Domain Chandon tasting room. I wanted to see what it looked like from the air.

Hell, I can come up with an excuse to fly anywhere if I try hard enough.

So I banked hard to the left and flew back down lake. I figured I’d follow the road toward Rutherford and then branch off to the south when I got to Napa Valley. I switched the camera from video mode to time-lapse with shots every 10 seconds. I captured this image as we flew down the lake.

Lake Berryessa
Here’s a shot of Lake Berryessa.

I followed the road I’d driven a few times before, most recently on Sunday, on my way back from Napa Valley. Then I made some turns, following valleys, watching out for power lines. Finally, I popped over some hills and dropped down into Napa Valley over the Silverado Trail.

Silverado Trail
Over the Silverado Trail, somewhere near Rutherford, CA.

Below me, the homes, wineries, and vineyards of Napa Valley stretched in all directions. Although the vineyards were not yet leafing out, there was an abundance of green in the grass, trees, and hillsides. It was gorgeous.

Somewhere around this time, I started thinking of my wasband, as I often do when I have amazing experiences I think he would enjoy. We did more than a few joy-flights together over the years, exploring the desert around our home in Arizona or going further afield, perhaps on cross-country trips to Lake Powell or Las Vegas or Washington State. We shared a bird’s eye view of so many amazing things from the air: the red rocks of Sedona, the blue waters of Lake Powell, the winding path of the Colorado River, the grandeur of the Hoover Dam, the haystack rock formations of the Oregon coast.

As I flew over the vineyards, I could imagine him beside me, trying to identify things we’d seen from the ground on previous visits to Napa Valley. His memory was better than mine — at least before he became delusional — and maybe he’d remind me of things I’d forgotten. Would he spot the winery where they’d served us chocolate cake with our cabernet? Surely it was down there somewhere. He might remember where.

But I reminded myself that any fond memories of my wasband were flawed and false. Maybe he wouldn’t have enjoyed this afternoon’s flight after all. Although he always seemed to like being in the helicopter, especially when he got to take the controls, these days I wasn’t sure what he really thought of those flights. He insinuated in court that he thought they were “work” that, for some reason, he should have been paid for — even though he lacked the pilot certification to do commercial flying and I was always sitting beside him in the pilot-in-command seat. Thinking back on our last few years together, I remember all the weekends he spent in front of a television, watching DVRed car shows. Perhaps he preferred doing that to flying. (He didn’t fly his plane either.)

His loss.

I don’t think I could ever get tired of flying a helicopter, especially on days like today when I’m free to go wherever I like in such a beautiful place. Sure beats anything on TV.

I consulted Foreflight on my iPad and realized I had passed Yountville. I made a sweeping turn to the right, lining up with route 29 on the other side of the valley as I headed north. Moments later, I overflew Yountville and the site I think we’ll be departing from tomorrow in a hot air balloon.

Domaine Chandon
I’m not 100% positive, but I think this is where our balloon will be launching from tomorrow.

I continued up the valley, once again retracing my route, in reverse, from Sunday’s drive. Rutherford, St. Helena, Calistoga. I saw the V.Sattui Vineyard looking quiet and empty on the late weekday afternoon. I saw the main drag in St. Helena. I saw the spas and resorts in Calistoga.

St. Helena
An aerial view of St. Helena in Napa Valley.

At Calistoga, I turned east again. I climbed over the mountains on the east side of the valley and dropped into a rugged canyon. I’d been flying for more than 30 minutes and was starting to think of heading back. I punched a GoTo to my base airport into the GPS and turned in the direction of the line. On Sunday I’d driven past Clear Lake, but I didn’t feel like flying out that way. I thought I’d give Lake Berryessa another flyby instead.

East of Calistoga
The mountains east of Calistoga are rugged, with basalt cliffs not unlike those near my home in Washington.

Pope Valley
The valley east of Napa — which I think is called Pope Valley — has vineyards, lakes, and ranch land.

Lake Berryessa Narrows
A narrow channel on Lake Berryessa. I had to be careful here; there were wires across the lake nearby.

Dam at Lake Berryessa
The BellyCam just happened to capture this perfect image of the Dam at the lower end of Lake Berryessa.

I flew down the lake, over the dam, and back into the canyon leading to Winters. Then, before I reached town, I headed north in the foothills with the vague notion of overflying the Cache Creek Casino. But before I got to Esparto, I changed my mind. Instead, I turned inbound to my base airport and, after a few radio calls, landed on the runway and taxied into parking. I set it down gently exactly where it had been an hour and 10 minutes earlier.

Penny
Penny waited for me while the BellyCam continued to snap photos every 10 seconds.

Penny stood up and looked at me, wagging her tail. She was ready to get out. I lifted her out and set her on the ground. She waited at the nose of the helicopter while I cooled the engine and shut it down. The camera caught several images of her standing on the tarmac with my mobile mansion home in the background.

Later, I used the mended tie-downs to secure the main rotor blades and locked up the helicopter.

It had been a great afternoon flight — one I’m glad I treated myself to. I’ll fly again soon — maybe with a balloon pilot beside me and two of his crew in back. Or maybe with my pilot friend George at the controls, exploring a new place. (Something tells me that he’s not very interested in television.) I’ve got a month left here and I plan to enjoy it every way I can.

I never did get down to Nut Tree airport.

Gyro Flight

A friend takes me for a ride in his open cockpit gyroplane.

An Angry Bird
Now this is an angry bird!

One of the great thing about living at an airport is that you’re exposed to neat aviation things on a daily basis. And what isn’t neat about an open cockpit gyroplane sporting a custom Angry Birds paint scheme?

My friend George owns this one. He was at the airport most of this week, teaching a friend how to fly it. Well, he was trying to. The wind howled pretty fiercely on Tuesday and much of Wednesday morning.

George and his Gyro
George posing with his gyro.

(This is a gyroplane or autogyro, by the way. Gyrocopter refers to the Bensen Gyrocopter manufactured by Bensen Aircraft.)

On Wednesday afternoon, George took me for a ride — despite winds 14 gusting to 20. It was an interesting experience for me.

With George
Strapped in and ready to go.

Like helicopters, gyroplanes have a mast and main rotor blades. But unlike a helicopter, a gyro has a means of propulsion — normally a pusher engine/prop. To fly a gyro, you use a pre-rotator to get the blades spinning. You then use the engine/prop to move forward on a runway or other suitable surface. At the right speed, the pilot pulls back on the stick like he would in an airplane to take off. Lift is generated by the rotor blades, which remain spinning in a mode very similar to an autorotation in a helicopter. The engine does not directly drive the rotor blades; the pre-rotator is disconnected before takeoff roll.

Low and Slow
Low and slow in an open cockpit plane? What could be better?

We were airborne for about 20-30 minutes. George demonstrated low flight along a creek bed, high flight, and a power-off landing that had us descending backwards in the stiff wind. (He had to dive to make the runway.) He demonstrated several very short landings and takeoffs. We flew low much of the time and waved at people on the ground waving up at us.

Side View
It’s a great feeling to have nothing between you and the ground you’re flying over.

I thoroughly enjoyed the flight. It reminded me a bit of the powered parachute ride I had a few years ago back in Washington — the closest thing to flying like a bird.

George is a CFI and I’m tempted to take a few lessons. It would be fun to better get to know this kind of aircraft. But there’s no gyroplane in my future — at least I don’t think there is — so getting a gyro rating would probably not be worthwhile.

Still, you never know…

Busting Myths about the FAA and Unmanned Aircraft

A good link to some real information — from the source.

I wrote about “drones” or “UAVs” in two recent blog posts:

The issue is rather polarized, with most pilots and people on the ground wanting more regulation and most drone/UAV operators wanting less. One reader nitpicked over my use of the word “drone” and comparison to radio controlled helicopter — as if one radio-controlled flying object is that much different from another.

If any flying object hits an aircraft in flight or falls from a sky onto someone’s head, it’s going to do some serious damage.

FAA LogoThe FAA, which, like most government agencies, operates so slowly it often seems as if it’s moving backwards, finally woke up and published an update on its website that clears up any “myths” surrounding the use of unmanned aircraft or UAS. Titled “Busting Myths about the FAA and Unmanned Aircraft,” it lists 7 myths and the corresponding facts for each.

Two myth/fact pairs stand out:

Myth #1: The FAA doesn’t control airspace below 400 feet

Fact—The FAA is responsible for the safety of U.S. airspace from the ground up. This misperception may originate with the idea that manned aircraft generally must stay at least 500 feet above the ground

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard people tell me that the FAA has no control over airspace near the ground. The number of feet from the ground that the FAA control begins varies from 50 to 150 to 300 to 400. These numbers seem arbitrary to me. The truth of the matter is, FAA-regulated airspace begins in the U.S. at the ground.

Myth #3: Commercial UAS operations are a “gray area” in FAA regulations.

Fact—There are no shades of gray in FAA regulations. Anyone who wants to fly an aircraft—manned or unmanned—in U.S. airspace needs some level of FAA approval. Private sector (civil) users can obtain an experimental airworthiness certificate to conduct research and development, training and flight demonstrations.  Commercial UAS operations are limited and require the operator to have certified aircraft and pilots, as well as operating approval….

Flying model aircraft solely for hobby or recreational reasons doesn’t require FAA approval, but hobbyists must operate according to the agency’s model aircraft guidance, which prohibits operations in populated areas.

Did you get that? Even hobbyists are prohibited from flying their radio controlled model aircraft over populated areas. That includes large gatherings of people for outdoor events.

If you’re interested in this topic, I urge you to read this article on the FAA website. It should help you realize that there’s really no “debate” about this — the rules are quite clear.

More about Drones

Once again, no one is thinking about helicopters.

An aviation friend of mine, Rod, posted a note on Facebook titled “The Drone Industry Should Play by the Rules, or Help Change Them.” I’m not sure if you need to be logged into Facebook to read what he posted, so I’ll just echo it here; I do urge you to read and comment on it there if you can and have something to add to the discussion:

Look folks, I’ve got no problem with drones operating outside the National Airspace System. (i.e. below 400 feet.) 

But if this innovative industry wants to conduct business in the NAS, you should have to play by the same rules as manned systems and certify the operators, the components, and the systems to the standards required by law.

If you don’t like the regulations that currently govern how the NAS is managed, help get the laws changed and deregulate aviation.

If you, like Rod, think that the national airspace system starts at 400 feet AGL, you need to read “Busting Myths about the FAA and Unmanned Aircraft” on the FAA website.

I asked where the 400-feet number comes from, pointing out that I’m authorized by the FAA to operate under Part 135 as low as 300 feet with passengers on board. He linked to an article on Politico about a lawsuit pending by the FAA against an “aerial anarchist” who uses a styrofoam plane for commercial aerial photography. From that article:

The FAA has never officially regulated model airplanes or small drones. The closest it has come was an “advisory” issued in 1981 that created a set of voluntary guidelines for model aircraft: stay within the line of sight, do not fly within three miles of an airport, do not fly a model airplane higher than 400 feet.

The article makes interesting reading, although it entirely misses the point of my problem with the kind of RC aircraft that are becoming more and more prevalent among amateur “drone pilots.” My problem has to do with the operation of these devices in areas where I fly, which can be within 400 feet of the ground, causing a nearly invisible hazard to me and my passengers.

As a helicopter pilot, I have no minimum flight altitude for my Part 91 operations — including aerial photography/videography, cherry drying, frost control, animal herding, wildlife survey — the list goes on and on. Part 91 allows me to fly as close to the ground as I need to (as long as I don’t create a hazard to people and property on the ground, of course). These are legitimate and legal low-level helicopter missions that often keep me within 100 feet of the ground. As previously mentioned, even my Part 135 operations allow me to operate as low as 300 feet above the ground.

Phantom with GoProThe Phantom 2 Quadcopter with a GoPro Hero attached. This aircraft can weigh nearly 3 pounds. How’d you like to get hit on the head with that dropping from 400 feet?

Imagine this scenario: I’m drying a cherry orchard and a local photo hobbyist decides to take out his Quadcopter with GoPro to get some footage of me or another cherry drying pilot in action. He keeps a respectable distance but is not prepared when one of us suddenly lifts up away from the trees and moves to another orchard. We don’t see him — we’re focused on our work and the location of other helicopter traffic — and one of us flies right into him. The helicopter’s cockpit bubble is smashed or the main rotor blades are damaged or, worse yet, the tail rotor is taken out and the aircraft crashes to the ground. Who’s right or wrong here? The drone is operating under 400 feet and at least 3 miles from the airport, so he’s “legal.” The helicopter pilots are performing a mission that we’ve been doing for years, relying on proven safety measures and radio communication to avoid obstacles and other traffic. Are we supposed to keep an eye out for amateur RC aircraft operators, too?

My aviation friend, Rod, suggests that drone operators should “help get the laws changed and deregulate aviation.” Does he really want aviation deregulated? Does he really want a free-for-all by anyone with a few hundred dollars to spend on an RC aircraft to fly it wherever they like for whatever purpose they desire?

Doesn’t he realize that it’s only a matter of time before they stray up into his previously safe airplane altitude?

Quadcopter
The Phantom Quadcopter is small and white, less than 14 inches wide. I’ve seen birds bigger than that.

And what are helicopter pilots supposed to do? How do you think I feel worrying that any one of my flights could be ended by a collision with an RC aircraft piloted by a hobbyist with a new toy who doesn’t care about the rules or safety? Someone who mistakenly thinks it’s my responsibility, while cruising at 80 knots, to keep an eye out for his toy? Something that might not much larger than a Frisbee?

And make no mistake about it: an impact on a main rotor blade or tail rotor could disable my helicopter and cause a crash.

What would I like to see? Here are a few suggestions for the operation of unmanned radio or computer controlled aircraft:

  • Limit amateur/hobbyist operations to designated RC aircraft fields that are marked on aeronautical charts.
  • Require professional/commercial operators to receive training and pass tests established and overseen by the FAA.
  • Require professional/commercial operators to publish NOTAMS whenever an operation outside an RC aircraft field is conducted.
  • Require all operations to be conducted with a spotter to keep an eye out for full-sized aircraft operating in the area.
  • Limit all operations to altitudes below 300 feet AGL.

I firmly believe that these aircraft, when operated by amateurs, are a danger not only to other aircraft but to people on the ground. There have been numerous crashes in populated areas, including one in Manhattan, and even a death attributed to a crash. How long will the FAA wait before it steps in and properly regulates these aircraft? These aircraft are proliferating at an alarming rate. As a pilot and property owner, I’m starting to get tired of worrying about the consequences of a careless operator’s actions.

And no: deregulating is not the answer we need.

February 26, 2014 Update: The FAA has spoken.