Lake Berryessa and the Glory Hole

Not something you see every day.

I spent a few weeks in the Sacramento area of California — as I have been since 2013 when I brought my helicopter there for its first frost control contract — in late February and early March. I’ve gotten to know the area pretty well over the past five years and as I continue to explore new places, I also return to the old ones. Lake Berryessa, the largest lake in Napa County, is one of these places.

I first discovered it during a drive up Putah Creek, starting in Winters, CA. From there, I made a stop at the Lake Solano Campground (which I eventually stayed at for the first time this year) and noted its crazy collection of peacocks. Farther up the road, I passed numerous parking areas for fishing and hiking and picnicking. Still farther, the road crossed the creek, wound up a hill, and passed the Monticello Dam, which holds in the waters of Lake Berryessa. Penny and I have hiked in various places along the shore, driven much of the west side’s shoreline, and even flown over it numerous times in my helicopter.

Aerial View of Lake Berryesssa
An aerial view of Lake Berryessa, shot with a GoPro on my helicopter back in March 2014. The water was very low.

For the first four years I’ve been in the area, the lake level was low — very low. This isn’t surprising given the serious drought that affected nearly all of California. All of the lakes I flew over were low. But this year things were different. This year, all the lakes are full, nearly full, or even — in some cases — overflowing. Lake Berryessa is one of the lakes with too much water.

Man-made lakes — basically, any lake that holds water in with a dam — usually have flood control features built in that guide excess water safely out of the lake and into a receiving stream or river. This is normally done with the use of a spillway that can be opened or is automatically utilized before the water level reaches the top of the dam.

Spillways come in different styles. The most common is a sort of water chute that excess water flows down, away from the dam. Most dams have this kind of spillway. The Oroville Dam, which has been in the news a lot lately, has spillways like this, one of which was severely damaged by floodwaters.

Another less common type is an open bell mouth spillway. That’s the type at Lake Berryessa. It’s a round concrete hole not far from the road and the dam. From Wikipedia:

Near the dam on the southeast side of the reservoir is an open bell-mouth spillway, 72 feet (22 m) in diameter, which is known as the Glory Hole. The pipe has a straight drop of 200 feet (61 m), and the diameter shrinks down to about 28 feet (8.5 m). The spillway has a maximum capacity of 48,000 cfs (1360 cms). The spillway operates when there is excess water in the reservoir; in 2017 after heavy rains it started flowing, for the first time since 2006.

Monticello Dam w/Glory Hole
In looking through my archive of photos from 2014, I found a GoPro photo of the dam from the air that clearly shows the Glory Hole when it isn’t in use.

It was in the news in February because the lake had finally filled, after 11 years, and water was flowing into the Glory Hole. Of course, I had to go see it. So when I got the helicopter into California and needed to a “maintenance flight” to check a few things, I headed over there. Sure enough, water was flowing into the hole and a small gathering of people along the road were looking in. I flew by a week later and the water was still flowing in.

I wanted to see it again from the ground, so I returned on Saturday. By that time, Penny and I were on our way home from nearly four months on the road so I had the Turtleback on my truck. Once again, I’m so glad I downgraded from my big fifth wheel; parking in the very crowded parking area was remarkably easy.

There were a lot of people there. It was, after all, Saturday and the Glory Hole had been on the news quite a bit. It made a good, easy, and free point of interest for sightseers.

Glory Hole from the Road
The Glory Hole, photographed from the road. That’s the dam to the right. The water is pretty close to the top.

Penny and I joined the crowd and walked along the road for a good look. The chain link fence made it difficult to get a good photo. The hole is right next to the road and pretty much fills the camera lens. But I did my best.

A guy was out there with a Phantom 4 drone so I decided to give my drone (AKA flying camera) a shot when he was done. I went pack to the truck, put Penny inside, and pulled out my drone. Within about 5 minutes, I had it all set up in a clear area between parked cars and the fence downstream from the dam. When I was sure the other drone had landed, I launched mine.

Understand that I’m still learning how to use my Mavic Pro. I’m also very careful. Immediately after launching, I took it up over the lake, away from people. Then I captured some still and video shots of the Glory Hole from the air, including a short pass where I flew directly over the hole with the camera pointing straight down.

Glory Hole from the Air
I really don’t know why the water looks so green in this shot. I don’t think it’s the camera. It must be something to do with the light.

I tweeted the video clip and got a lot of positive feedback about it. I also got a request to contact the folks at a video licensing company who want to represent me on the resale of the clip to news other media organizations. I’ll all for that, provided my FAA Commercial UAS Pilot certificate has come through; it’s not legal to sell drone photography without it. Need to get home and check my mail to see if the paperwork is there; I applied back in January so I should be good.

I need more practice using my Mavic and I intend to get some on my way home. I had it out again this morning from my campsite at Bodega Bay. I’m hoping to put together a little montage when I get home and share it here on the blog. Stay tuned.

DJI Sales Support Experience Update

This is a total fail.

Back in January, I blogged about ordering a Mavic flying camera from DJI, a company with plenty of slick marketing materials that make it look as if they have a significant U.S. presence but apparently operate 100% in China. At about the time I had my lengthy online chat with DJI’s support people, I also sent an email message to them asking about the status of my order.

That was January 9, 2017.

On February 13, 2017 — yes, five full weeks later — I got the following response from them:

DJI Support Email

Of course, by this point, I’d already gotten my Mavic. In fact, I got it less than two weeks after my email message to them. It just took them 5 weeks to send me a canned response that provided no help and certainly proved they hadn’t looked into my support request at all.

I’m not the only one who is amazed at the complete lack of sales support from DJI. My friend Jim, who saw and liked my Mavic, decided to buy one, too. He ordered from DJI and was originally told it would ship out within a few days. Later, they changed that to a few weeks. He cancelled the order and ordered from Amazon instead. He’ll have it by the end of the week.

I can’t knock the product. The Mavic is an amazing tool for aerial photography and videography that’s incredibly easy to fly. I blogged a bit about it here. But the quality of sales support by DJI is dismal.

With so many customers in the U.S., would it kill them to open a call center with access to sales info to help its new customers? They must be absolutely raking in the dough on these things — they’re not cheap.

And are we going to be similarly served if anything goes wrong with our Mavics and we need technical support under our extended warranties? I sure hope not.

Drone Pilots: Beware of Bird Strikes!

Just a quick warning, with photos.

Last week, I did a few photo missions with my Mavic Pro flying camera. For two of the msisions, I launched from an open area at the far east side of the Tyson Wells complex in Quartzsite, just south of Keuhn Road.

I’m in the habit of using the Return-to-Home feature of my Mavic to get it back to its launch point quickly and efficiently. In all honesty, I’m awed by its ability to land exactly on its takeoff spot nearly every single time. I like to watch, with my finger poised over the pause button on the control (just in case), as it comes to the right coordinates far overhead, turns to the direction in which it took off, and descends to the spot.

On one of the three missions I flew from that spot, a small flock of pigeons flew right past the Mavic. I watched in shock and a bit of horror as the five or six birds swooped around my fragile aircraft. I felt relief as the Mavic continued its descent unharmed, but the whole thing repeated itself when another flock — or the same flock? — swooped past. Again, the Mavic was unharmed.

I happened to have the video camera going when this was happening. Here are two screen grabs, one from each flight, that show the closest encounter. The first one was definitely closer.

Near Miss
This reminds me of a scene from The Birds.

Near Miss
The bird is a bit farther off in this one. Can you see it?

Of course, the camera can’t capture action in a direction it isn’t pointing. For all I know they could have come closer behind the camera.

While this is all kind of cool in a weird sort of way, it wouldn’t have been so cool if one of those birds clipped a rotor. The Mavic has four independently powered rotors. If any one of them was destroyed, I’d have to think the whole thing would immediately go out of balance and crash. This is one good reason why we don’t fly drones over crowds of people. Even though the Mavic weighs in at less than 2 pounds, having one crash onto your head from 150 feet would definitely cause some injuries.

Honestly, I’m surprised this hasn’t happened yet. A matter of time?

Mavic Pro Observations

What I’m seeing, liking, and not liking — so far.

Mavic Pro
The Mavic Pro, unfolded for flight. Although the manual says to remove the clear protective cover over the gimbal, I suspect it might be usable during flight — if it doesn’t fall off. I remove it.

I’ve had my new DJI Mavic Pro drone in my hot little hands for about four days now and have taken it on a total of five missions so far. (More on my use of the word “mission” shortly.) I’ve developed some definite thoughts about it, from the perspective of a pilot, photographer, videographer, and new drone pilot. I thought I’d take a moment to share them with readers who might be considering the purchase of a drone for photography.

And that’s a big part of what this drone is to me: it’s a tool for making photos and videos. While some people buy drones for the flying aspect of them and actually race them around obstacles, etc., I have no intention of doing that. (At least not yet.) And if you’re thinking of buying a drone for that purpose, I don’t recommend a Mavic, despite what the DJI website shows it capable of doing. I’m sure you can buy a less expensive drone that’ll be better for racing (and crashing). Do your homework. See what the other guys (mostly) and gals are racing and what they have to say about their equipment.

Portability

Folded Mavic
It folds up small.

The most obvious benefit to having a drone that folds up into the size of a one-liter bottle of coke is portability — and that’s the main reason I bought the Mavic. Its folded size is less than 4 x 4 x 8 inches.

The truth of the matter is, my friend Jim offered me a smoking deal on his DJI Phantom 4 because he was upgrading to a Phantom 4 Pro. Buying his gently used drone would have saved me a bunch of money. But the reality is that I travel a lot, often without a lot of space for baggage. The Phantom 4 does not fold up at all and although there are carrying cases available for them, they’re not easily brought on a four-month trip in a truck camper or with gear in the back of a helicopter or on a motorcycle. And don’t even think about taking a hike with one.

Although I bought the Mavic package that included a carry bag smaller than a shoebox that can fit the drone, the controller, at least two spare batteries, and a battery charger, I stopped using the bag on Day Three, switching instead to a very small backpack I’d bought around Christmas time for hiking. The DJI bag was a snug fit for the drone and I worried about damaging it as I crammed it in and dragged it out. The bag is surprisingly bad design for a drone that has an amazingly good design. If you are considering the purchase of this bag, I recommend you skip it. If you want a padded bag, look for a small camera bag. (Or buy mine. It’ll likely go on eBay next week.)

With portability comes the question of durability. A Twitter friend asked me if it was durable. Are any of these things durable? I said no. But I also said it isn’t fragile. Later, in my mind, I equated it with the difference between those standard green David Clark aviation headsets (durable but kind of clunky) and Bose ANR headsets (not durable but lighter and sleeker). Neither will break if you handle them with care, but the Bose headsets are more likely to break if you don’t. The Mavic, of course, would be the Bose in this analogy.

And yes, it’s light. The drone, onboard battery, controller, and two spare batteries weigh in at under 2-1/2 pounds.

Design

I am completely blown away by the drone’s design. The way it folds up so neatly, the way the blades fold to make it even smaller, the way the micro SD card fits into the side, the way the battery is so well integrated with the drone’s body, the way the tiny camera lens and gimbal hang from the front — it’s all extremely well thought out and executed.

That’s the design for portability and flight. The design for actual use is a bit less rosy.

As a regular commenter on this blog pointed out in comments for a previous post this week, the Mavic sits very close to the ground. It only has two legs (on the front) and two little stubs on the back. That puts the gimbal mounted camera just inches off the ground. If you’re flying it from grass or from rocky terrain, that camera is going to be in the grass or bumped by rocks. And if there’s dust, that dust is going to fly on landing and take off (just like with a helicopter) and possibly get into rotor heads or gimbal parts. I had the foresight to order a foldable landing pad to operate from — this helps ensure a safe, clean environment for operations. But I also have to take care on landing to make sure it lands on the pad. Later, I picked up a 3 x 4 rubber-backed mat that I’ll likely wind up using in my garage when I get home. Until then, it’s an expanded landing zone when I travel with my truck.

The only real complaint I have about the design is related to the plastic clamp that holds the gimbal immobile during transport: I have a heck of a time getting that damn thing on. I assume I’ll better at it one of these days; I sure hope it’s soon.

Controller

The Mavic’s controller also folds up into a smaller package. It has a screen with general information about the drone’s status and the usual buttons and joysticks to control it. But it has no video monitor. Instead, you affix a smart phone running the DJI Go app (or another app; more on that later), to the controller. It has a moveable plug preconfigured for iPhone users, but also comes with other plugs for other smartphones. You plug in your phone and then clamp it into the controller. The clamp is tight and, miraculously, lets me keep the bumper cover I have for my phone on the phone. The phone is definitely not going to fall out. My only complaint, which is minor, is that I have difficulty tapping the home button since it’s partially covered by the clamp. I think that if I fiddle with it enough and experiment with different positions, I might be able to make that problem go away.

The controller and a smart phone work together to control the drone. I’m pretty sure you can control it without a smart phone, but I suspect it would be a lot more difficult, especially since you would not be able to see what the camera sees without the camera as a monitor.

There is a lot to learn about the controller and the DJI Go app. Yes, you can pick it up and fly it almost immediately with just a few pointers from a friend or a quick glance through the manual, but you will never master either flying or photography — which really do need to be considered separately — without reading the manual and trying various features until you learn what works for you.

My only gripe about the controller setup is age related: my older eyes simply can’t see the video feed on my phone as well as I’d like them to. Yes, I wear readers. And yes, I stand with my back to the sun to shield the screen from direct sunlight. But still, in monotonous terrain — like the desert where I’ve been flying lately — it’s sometimes hard to figure out what the camera is looking at. More than a few times, I sent the drone forward only to discover that it was pointing in a different direction than I thought it was. Oops.

User Guides

The User Manual — which is only available online as a PDF — sucks, plain and simple.

At 59 pages long, which includes the cover and a lot of pages that simply don’t provide any real instructions, it provides just enough information for someone knowledgeable about flying or photography to figure out what they need to do to fly and shoot photos/video. But if you’re a complete newcomer to either one and think you’re going to race around trees in a forest while filming exciting video sequences on Day One, you’re only fooling yourself. I’m constantly going back to it, looking up features I think should be available, finding bits and pieces of information, and then putting it all together to learn a new task. I’m thinking I might write up some task-based tutorials for myself and others who might need them.

The Quick Start Guide, which comes in a tiny booklet, has only 10 pages of information between front and back covers. The printed version has multiple languages in it, which makes it seem a lot larger than it is. It’s also available as a PDF with just one language. Again, if this isn’t your first drone, it’ll definitely have enough information to get you started. Otherwise, good luck.

Flight

Okay, this is where I’m completely blown away: the automatic features for flight are amazing.

While it is possible to manually take off using the joysticks — and my friend Jim taught me how to do this on his Phantom 4 — it also has an automatic takeoff feature. Tap a button and slide your finger across a confirmation screen, and the Mavic powers up and climbs to a four-foot, rock solid hover. It’s just amazing to watch, especially if you’re a helicopter pilot and understand what it takes to make such a smooth, solid takeoff in a helicopter. And yes, I understand that the aerodynamics of a four-rotor drone is different from that of a single main rotor helicopter.

Push the left (pitch/yaw) stick forward and the drone can climb straight up like a rocket at a maximum speed of 16.4 feet per second — that’s 984 feet per minute for us pilot types. Push the left stick right or left and the drone rotates. Pull the left stick backwards, and the drone descends at up to 9.8 fps (588 fpm). Helicopter pilots can equate the operation of the left stick to the collective (forward/back = pitch) and tail rotor pedals (left/right = yaw) on a helicopter, even though the stick controls different mechanical operations on the drone.

Push the right stick in any direction and the drone flies in that direction without changing the direction in which the nose (camera) is pointing. This is like a helicopter’s cyclic, although again, it controls different mechanical operations on a drone.

As you might expect, the farther you push a stick, the faster the drone moves.

Getting it airborne and actually flying it is remarkably easy — to a point. It’s precision flying that takes a lot of effort and practice. The drone acts immediately and rather abruptly to most control inputs, so if the video camera is turned on while rotating it or adjusting the angle of the gimbal, you can clearly see a sort of jerky response. Like learning to hover a helicopter, you need gentle control inputs. And that takes practice.

The Mavic has three modes for flying: Positioning (P), Sport (S), and Tripod. Most regular flying is done in P mode, which also has obstacle avoiding features enabled. If you want to fly faster and aren’t worried about obstacles, S mode is available with the flick of a switch on the controller. The difference in speed is about 20 miles per hour for P mode vs. 40 miles per hour in S mode. Tripod mode, which I hope to explore today if the wind isn’t as bad as forecasted, slows everything down, making it easier to get smooth video shots.

DJI Go app options make it easy to keep the drone from wandering off where it shouldn’t be. The very first thing I set was the maximum altitude — in the U.S. drones are limited to 400 feet AGL unless an FAA waiver is obtained. I also limited its distance, at least at first. While the Mavic’s dark color makes it easy to spot in the sky, it’s easy to lose sight of it if you take your eyes off of it while it’s moving. I recommend operating with a spotter whenever possible. I usually hear it better than I see it, unless I’m in a noisy environment. I do believe, however, that it’s a little quieter than Jim’s Phantom 4. They both sound like angry bees — and believe me, as a beekeeper I know exactly what angry bees sound like — but Jim’s drone sounds like more angry bees than mine.

I believe there are limitations built into the software that prevent operation near airports, but I haven’t been close enough to an airport yet to test that. If so, it’s a good feature that pilots should be happy about. (Now if only they’d limit climb to 400 in the software instead of making it an option. Out of the box, the Mavic has an operating ceiling of more than 18,000 feet, which is absurd.)

Landing the Mavic couldn’t be easier. Really. I use the automatic landing feature almost all the time. It eliminates the need to navigate back to the home base. Just tap a button and use a slider to confirm you want the drone to return to home. It immediately turns back to its starting point, climbs if necessary, and heads back at top speed (for its mode). You can watch the distance change on the controller. When it’s overhead, it might look as if it has passed the landing zone, but it hasn’t. It turns to the direction it was facing when it took off, then descends straight down. When it’s less than 10 feet from the ground, it might make some adjustments. At about three feet up, it pauses and then comes right down to the ground and shuts its engines. The whole time it’s doing this, the controller is letting out an annoying beep-beep-beep, displaying an option that enables you to take over. That’s because obstacle avoidance is disabled while landing and you might need to stop the auto land feature. I’ve found, however, that in good conditions with precision landing enabled, the Mavic lands exactly where it took off from. To me, that’s the coolest thing of all.

Photography

Tyson Wells from the Air
A view of Tyson Wells from the air, looking southeast.

The thing that changed my mind about drones, as I discuss in a blog post from December, is the quality of photographs and video — especially video — from drones. I’d seen videos from my friend Jim’s and I was hooked. They were, by far, clearer and steadier than most video shot from my helicopter. It was no wonder videographers were turning to drones. They could get better results for less money.

(I do need to point out again here that for aerial photo jobs covering a large area, you’ll definitely get the job done faster in a helicopter. As I mentioned in my December 23 blog post:

But another client needed aerial video and still images all along the Columbia River from Wenatchee to Chelan, then up the Wenatchee River to Leavenworth and up Lake Chelan to Stehekin. This was well over a hundred miles to cover and some of it was inaccessible by car. We got all of the shots in less than three hours of flight time. It would have taken weeks to get that footage with a drone — and even then, some of it would have been impossible to get.

So don’t give up completely on helicopters. Think about the mission before deciding on the tool.)

I’ll admit that it sort of broke my heart when I realized that the GoPro “nosecam” videos I’d been sharing were absolute crap compared to what I could get with a drone. If you can’t beat them…

So here I am with my own aerial camera — which is what the Mavic really is. It can do video with resolutions up to 4K, which is the default setting. I actually thought there was a problem with the camera when I tried to play back the video on my 5-year-old MacBook Air. The reality was that the computer simply couldn’t handle the amount of data in the video file. I’ve since set it down to 1090p, which is all I need, at least for now. The video is amazing: smooth and clear. I’ll let you see for yourself; if you can, view these in full screen at the highest resolution YouTube offers:


In this example, I’ve put the Mavic into a 200-foot hover at the edge of an outdoor sale event in Quartzsite, AZ. Hands off on the controls and it’s rock steady. I couldn’t do that in a helicopter.


I shot this video yesterday morning. I flew out at 150 feet and back at 200 feet. This is the return flight, which seemed to have a better angle, using Return-to-Home mode. At the end, you’ll see me standing with a retired guy I met who used to program robots for airplane manufacturing. Keep in mind that this is only a small portion of the thousands of people camped out in the BLM land around Quartzsite right now.

I have not experimented much with still photos. I get so caught up in the flying and video that I forget to snap photos once in a while. It can save JPEGs at 12 megapixel resolutions. I’m not sure if it can save photos while it’s shooting video.

The camera is completely adjustable for automatic and manual settings. Again, I haven’t experimented much with this yet. Just getting it to fly where I want has been enough of a challenge for the first three days of flying. And the manual leaves out too many details; it’s hard enough just to find the settings.

Missions

I’m teaching myself how to use the Mavic by creating “missions” for myself. A mission is a task I need/want to complete. Yesterday’s mission was to get video footage of the long stretch of desert near where I’m camped where so many other people are camped (see second video above). I wanted a nice record of the sheer volume of people dry camping here. I can repeat this mission in about a half dozen other places to get an even bigger picture of the weird situation in Quartzsite during the big RV show, but time is running out. The forecast calls for high winds today and the campers will start rolling out of here on Sunday.

Another mission is to video the activity around the RV show. That would entail setting up a point of interest in the middle of the show area and then flying the drone around it at a safe distance from participants with the camera continuously focused on the middle of the action. I’m hoping to do that on Saturday when the show is busiest. I might practice on a smaller scale with some of the camps around here first.

My goal is to understand what controls and settings to use to accomplish missions like these. I can then call upon what I’ve learned to complete missions for paying clients once I finish getting my commercial UAS pilot rating. I see drone photography as a component of the services Flying M Air can offer.

Ready to Buy a Drone?

My interest in drones seems to have sparked an interest in other people. I hope this blog posts helps them decide, one way or the other. In any case, I’m sure this isn’t the last you’ve heard from me about my Mavic Pro.

I do have a favor to ask, though. If you do decide to buy a drone and you want to buy from Amazon — which offers great prices and free shipping — please use one of my links. I get a tiny commission from sales that originate with a link from this site and I sure would appreciate the income to help cover my hosting fees.

How many mostly ad-free sites have you visited lately? Very few, I’ll bet. I guarantee that the folks who build and maintain them would similarly appreciate your support.

And if you’re interested in buying a gently used DJI Phantom 4, my friend Jim has one for sale — as soon as his Phantom 4 Pro arrives, anyway. I can put you in touch with him — but please, only if you’re serious. It’ll be a good deal, but he isn’t giving it away.

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.