Our Government In Action: Commercial Drone Pilot Rating Edition

How much more inconvenient can they make it?

Mavic Pro
My flying camera takes amazing still and video photos.

Regular readers of this blog might know that I bought a Mavic Pro flying camera back in January 2017. Before spending the money, I did my homework on FAR Part 107, which sets forth rules and regulations for commercial sUAS (small Unmanned Aerial Systems, AKA drones) operations. The certification process was pretty simple for existing pilots: study the rules, take an online training course, pass the test at the end of the course, and submit an application to the FAA for the sUAS rating to be added to my existing pilot certificate. I did all of this on December 20, 2016.

I fully expected to get some kind of correspondence from the FAA in the mail. Although some of my mail was forwarded to me while I was traveling this winter, not all of it was. Still, I didn’t get anything from the FAA for this in my forwarded mail or the mail held for me at home. Nothing.

Yesterday, I revisited the process, certain that I had neglected to do something. I followed the trail of multiple websites to find the place where I had filled in my application. I logged in and reviewed the application, which was dated 12/20/16 with a status of “Submitted by Applicant.” There were no additional instructions or useful information to tell me what I needed to do next or whether my application was even being processed.

I made four phone calls. Eventually, I got a guy at the FAA’s Spokane FSDO (Flight Standards District Office). For those of you unfamiliar with that kind of FAA office, its basically a regional office handling local FAA matters like aircraft and pilot certifications and airport operations. He told me that all I had to do was take my printed application to the FSDO and have someone there check my ID. They could then print out a certificate.

I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right. I had to drive to Spokane — which is 3 hours away by car — and show my driver’s license to someone in the office to prove I was who I said I was? So I’d need to spend six hours of my day, plus whatever time it took in Spokane, just to verify my identity?

Yep. Or I could go to the Seattle FSDO in Renton, WA (also 3 hours each way). Or the Portland FSDO in Hillsboro, OR (5-1/2 hour each way).

Of course, if I knew a DPE (Designated Pilot Examiner) who was closer, I could pay him to verify my identity and let him submit the paperwork. Although the FAA guy didn’t say this, I knew what would happen next: the paperwork would disappear into a black hole at the FAA for another three months.

As you might imagine, this completely floors me. In the past few years, I have made numerous very large banking and real estate transactions, each of which required positive identification, entirely via the Internet. Hangar sale, house sale, land sale, loan applications, wire transfers. Transactions worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in total, all requiring that I be identified before completing the transaction.

Why is it that the banks and title companies I worked with were able to verify my identity online when the FAA — which already has the name, address, phone number, and social security number associated with my existing pilot certificate — can’t?

Part 107 Explained
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Apparently, it’s because the FAA treats this as a brand new pilot certificate instead of an add-on rating. It doesn’t matter that they know who I am because they meet up with me at least once a year for my Part 135 certificate. I still have to jump through this ridiculous and meaningless hoop.

Just to get a piece of paper to make my commercial drone pilot operations legal. In the meantime, hundreds, if not thousands, of drone pilots are out there doing the same kind of work that I want to do without any kind of certification. Heck, I’m willing to bet that at least half of them haven’t even bothered to register their drones.

Is there any wonder why people break the rules? Could it be because the rules are ridiculous and cumbersome to follow?

So today I’ll pull my little Honda out of the garage. I’ll gas it up in town and hit the highway. I’ll drive all the way to Spokane and visit the fine folks in the FSDO there. They’ll look at my license and they’ll check a few boxes on the form I’ve printed out for their convenience. Then they’ll go into a back room and punch some keys on a computer keyboard. Moments later, a piece of paper — my temporary certificate, I guess? — will come out of a printer. They’ll hand it to me and I’ll begin the long drive back home, stopping for gas again along the way.

A whole day of my time blown.

In a few weeks (or months?), I’ll get a new plastic card from the FAA’s main office in Oklahoma. I’ll slip it in to my wallet with my existing pilot certificate — another card to carry around all the time.

But at least I’ll be legal to do commercial drone photography. That’s a lot more than I can say about a lot of the other drone pilots out there.

11 thoughts on “Our Government In Action: Commercial Drone Pilot Rating Edition

  1. After all those checkrides and the dozens of hoops you’ve jumped through getting your FAA ratings, you should have expected that the process would would be as slow, bureaucratic, and inefficient as any other encounter with them. Frankly, I still expect that at some point they’ll try to impose their own standards on drone construction and maintenance, thereby ensuring that it’ll become wildly unaffordable and impossible to comply with. And why not just put the drone rating on your existing license, why a separate card?

    • I guess you’re right: I should have expected it. But as communication technology improves in other aspects of my life, I assumed it would have improved in the government’s bureaucracy. Silly me.

      What they don’t get is that the harder or more expensive they make it for people to comply with the rules, the more people will break them.

      At this point, anyone with $1,000 to spend can buy a virtually idiot-proof aircraft capable of taking absolutely stunning aerial photos and videos. In my opinion, the FAA is going about this all wrong. They should be taking $25 (instead of $5) for registration, require a separate number for each unit, simplify the certification process for existing pilots, and completely automate everything with an online system. They’d be rating in the dough.

    • If they government could even manage to collect the $5 for every drone out there that qualifies, they’d no doubt fund the program plus some. The FAA, however, is among the Federal Governments most backwards and entrenched bureaucracies, where innovation is always to be feared and all change is automatically considered to be bad.

      Any example of “out of the box” type thinking on the part of a bureaucrat can never be used to reward an individual or office within the organization. There is no mechanism for it and no incentive to encourage that type of behavior. There is, however, plenty of “institutional knowledge” where innovation is followed by debacle. Instead of rewarding innovation, any form of “sticking your neck out” which might benefit the public is used by jealous co-workers and timid, risk-averse, change-fearing managers to attack and punish those who dare suggest that change might be not only possible, but desirable.

      You need look no further than the FAAs multi-year-long delay at permitting the use of NVGs (night vision goggles) into Helicopter Emergency Medical Service as an example. The FAA banned civilian NVG flying for years,while they slowly ‘completed their study’. And then for several years more, while they sat on that un-released study, for no apparent reason. It took a lawsuit and a Freedom of Information Act demand on the part of the civilian EMS companies to even get the FAA to acknowledge the results, which as a surprise to absolutely nobody, concluded that helicopter pilots flying VFR at night do a better job of not running into things when they can see where they’re going, using NVGs.

      Talk to any mid-level FAA drone (the bureaucratic type, not quad-rotor type) and see if they don’t agree. If there was any agency who needs a shake-up and re-set more than the FAA, they’d probably be hard pressed to think of it. And if there was ever an agency who would resist that kind of change till it’s last, petrified, bureaucratic breath, it’s also the FAA, where change can only be bad, and is to be avoided at all cost.

    • I agree with you. Although I couldn’t get the FAA guy on the phone to admit it, he agreed that it was absurd for me to make a 6-hour round trip drive to flash them my ID. He was even somewhat apologetic.

      As a footnote, I didn’t make the drive yesterday as planned. I got knocked silly by a cold and spent the day sleeping. Today I’m going to explore other options with a local CFI.

  2. Your FAA seems almost as insanely bureaucratic as our CAA. We often have to take documents to their headquarters as post goes missing and no clerk dare to say ‘you did not send the relevant form in time’ if you get them to sign for it while you are talking to them in person.
    Sad that it should come to this.
    You have done all they asked but your compliance is obviously so unusual they are flummoxed by it!

    Drones are proliferating far faster than the bureaucrats can cope. They demand that their ‘system of licensing’ is followed, yet they lack either the resources, or the logic, to enforce these rules.

    It is insulting to properly qualified aviators like you to have to jump through hoops that others merely pretend don’t exist. Without sanctions or registrations this problem will escalate.
    It is now commonplace for drones to be spotted by commercial pilots at altitudes of 4-5,000′ agl, smack in the middle of airport approaches. Sooner or later an airliner’s turbofan will ‘ingest’ one of these…with the predictable results.

    • Frankly, I’m surprised that it hasn’t happened already. There have been several incident with small aircraft striking drones, and numerous reports of near misses. Only a matter of time…

  3. Wait – Stop – Halt. Save the gas and time.

    I just showed my ID to a local CFI…

    I followed the steps on the FAA website
    which included setting up an IACRA account.
    I completed the 8710-13 online,
    entered my FAA Safety course certificate number
    then showed my ID to the CFI.
    He logged on and verified everything.
    It then goes to the local FSDO – no travel.
    I just did that Monday so no idea when I will hear back.

    • I spoke to another heli pilot who got his drone rating and he said he and a friend verified each other — they’re both CFIs. So I called a local CFI and set up a meeting with him. Looks like it might work, although I’m still worried about the black hole.

    • The CFI certified my ID on Monday.
      I just got an email saying that my Temp Certificate was available on IACRA. Four days is pretty good. Now the wait for the permanent certificate. Then I will have to see if it shows up as a Rating in the Airman Certificate database. Otherwise how will all those people that have a UAS but need a licensed Remote Pilot find me?

What do you think?