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?

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. I’ll likely be the only one within 100 miles who is.

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.

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An Insider’s Look at Helicopter Spray Operations

Fascinating work with a lot of very specialized equipment.

My friend Sean runs a helicopter spraying operation. (You might know about this kind of work by another name: crop dusting.) The business is highly regulated not only by the FAA to ensure that operators and pilots have the skills and knowledge to do the work safely from an aviation perspective, but also by state and local agencies concerned with the safety of the chemicals being sprayed. It also requires a ton of very costly specialized equipment, from spray rigs that are semi-permanently installed on the helicopter to navigation equipment that helps the pilot ensure chemicals are spread evenly over crops to mixing and loading equipment to get the chemicals into the helicopter’s spray tanks.

Sean's Helicopter with Spray Gear
Sean’s helicopter with spray gear. He was running rinse water through the system on the ground here.

A lot of people have asked me why I don’t go into this business. Although I’d love to fly spray jobs, I have absolutely no desire to invest in the required equipment, start selling spray services to potential clients, or deal with the government agencies that need to get involved for each job. Or have employees again.

Sean is just getting his business off the ground (no pun intended) after over a year of spending money on equipment and jumping through hoops with the FAA. While I wouldn’t say he’s struggling, he’s certainly motivated to complete contracts and collect revenue. Unfortunately, it’s not the kind of work a pilot can do cost effectively without help. He needs at least one person on the ground to mix and load chemicals, refuel the helicopter, and keep the landing zone secure.

Sean was having trouble finding someone to do the job. It’s not because he isn’t paying — I think he’s paying pretty good. Trouble is, a lot of folks either (1) don’t want a job that doesn’t guarantee a certain number of hours a week or (2) don’t like physical labor. Because the job depends on when there’s a contract to fulfill and what the weather is like when the job needs doing, hours are irregular. And it is tough physical work.

Spray Gal
Here I am in my coveralls, hamming it up for a selfie between loads.

I know because I stepped up to the plate to help him with his first two big jobs. I thought I’d spend a bit of time talking about this work from the loader’s point of view.

The Job

The pilot’s responsibilities are to spread the loaded chemicals over the crops to be sprayed using the tools in and on the helicopter. I can’t speak much about that because I haven’t flown a spraying mission. I can tell you that in a light helicopter like the R44, the pilot is doing a lot of very short runs — sometimes only a few minutes — and is often spending more time getting to and from the spray area than actually applying the spray. For that reason, the landing/loading area needs to be as close to the crops as possible — usually somewhere on the same property. The pilot is taking off near max gross weight for most flights and landing relatively light. And there are a lot of take offs and set downs. As I told Sean the other day, doing spray runs is a lot like doing hop rides at fairs and airport events — you just don’t need to talk to your passengers.

The loader’s responsibilities — well, that’s something I can address since I’ve been wearing that hat for the past two weeks.

When the pilot is warming up the aircraft for the first flight of the day, the loader is mixing the first batch of chemicals. Sean’s current setup includes a mix trailer that holds 1600 gallons of fresh water, a Honda pump, a mix vat, and a dry mix box. With the pump running, I turn valves to add 50 gallons of water to the vat, which is constantly mixing. Then I add about 4-6 capfuls of an anti-foam agent (which is not HazMat) to the vat, followed by a specific amount of chemical provided in 32-ounce bottles.

Mix trailer
Sean’s mix trailer onsite at an orchard near Woodland, CA. This is the “business end.” The mix vat is on the left.

Luna Sensation
This is how the chemical we’re using is shipped: in 32-ounce bottles.

The chemical we’ve been using is a “broad spectrum fungicide for control of plant diseases” made by Bayer (yes, the aspirin people). It is highly regulated and must be kept under lock and key when not in use. It looks a lot like Milk of Magnesia, which was a constipation remedy my grandmother gave us when I was growing up. It doesn’t smell as good, though. (And I’m certainly not going to taste it.) If you’re not familiar with that, think of an off-white Pepto Bismol. We’re spraying this stuff on almond trees and there’s a definite deadline to getting it done.

Here’s where some math comes in. The guy who wrote up the specs for our client’s orchard wants 6.5 ounces of the stuff applied per acre. The helicopter can take 50 gallons of chemical mix at a time. That 50 gallons covers 2.5 acres. So how much do I need to put into the vat for each 50 gallon load? 6.5 x 2.5 = 16.25. Round that down to the nearest whole number for 16. This is an easy mix because the chemical comes in 32 ounce bottles and there are measuring tick marks on the bottle at 8, 16, and 24 ounces. That makes it easy to add half a bottle and get it right. But if it didn’t work out so smoothly, we could use a big measuring cup Sean has to get the right amount.

So I add the chemical and the mixer mixes it up. If I’ve finished the bottle, I need to rinse it, which I do by dipping it in the mixer and then swishing it around a few times before dumping it into the mix. Then I put the empty bottle away in a box; even the empties are accounted for at the end of a job.

As you might imagine, I’m wearing protective gear: rubber gloves and coveralls. This particular chemical isn’t very nasty and I’m not likely to breathe it so I don’t need to wear a respirator or anything like that. (If I did, I probably wouldn’t be helping out.)

All this tank filling and mixing takes me less than 2 minutes.

Stopwatch
I timed one of our cycles. Lap 1 was skids down to skids up: my loading work. Lap 2 was skids up to skids down: Sean’s flight. Less than 4 minutes for a cycle.

When Sean is ready for chemical, I turn the valves on the trailer’s mix system to direct mixed chemical into a thick long hose with a specialized fitting at the end. I bring the fitting over to the helicopter, drop down to my knees (which is why I also wear knee pads), and mate the hose fitting to a fitting on the helicopter’s tank. I then turn a valve on the hose fitting to get the mix flowing into the helicopter. I watch the mix vat the whole time and turn the valve off when it gets near the bottom so I don’t run it dry. Then I get back up and use a pull cord on a pump on the same side of the helicopter to start up his pumping system. When that’s running, I give Sean a thumbs up and head back to the trailer, gently resting the hose fitting on the hose along the way.

I timed this once and it took just over a minute, but that’s because it took two tries to get the helicopter’s pump going.

Sean lifts off immediately — often while I’m still walking away — and I get back to work mixing the next batch. When I’m done with that, I wait until Sean returns. It’s usually less than 4 minutes. Then I’m turning valves on the trailer quickly, sometimes before he even touches down. My goal is to minimize load time so he can take off again quickly.

Landing
Here’s Sean coming in for a landing beside the trailer. And yes, his approach route for a while was under a set of wires. (The rest of the time, he was departing under them.)

I usually leave the pump on the whole time I’m in the loading area, although if Sean’s work area is more than a minute or two from the landing zone, I sometimes shut it off. I wear ear plugs or earbuds so I can listen to music while I work. I keep a radio in my pocket so I can hear Sean if he calls for something or warn him if there’s a problem with the landing zone.

Beyond Mixing/Loading

Every six or seven runs, Sean needs fuel. He often radios ahead, but if he doesn’t or if I don’t hear the radio, I can tell he needs fuel because he throttles down to idle RPM (65%) after landing or makes a hand signal. In that case, I’ll fill the chemical first and return the hose to its resting position, then turn on the fuel pump on his truck, and walk the hose over to the passenger side of the helicopter. Sean said fueling is usually done by walking around the back, but no one can pay me enough money to walk between a helicopter’s exhaust pipe and tail rotor while it’s running. So I walk around the front, dragging the hose under the spray gear to get into position. Then I pump fuel until he gives me a signal to stop. It seems to me that he’s half filling the main tank each time — that’s about 14 gallons less whatever he already has in there.

When I’m done, I cap the tank, carefully walk the hose around the front of the helicopter to the truck, and then go back to start that pesky helicopter pump. Thumbs up and he takes off. I usually remember to turn the fuel pump off. Then I mix another batch of chemical so I’m ready when he returns.

Occasionally his pump or mine needs fuel. He uses helicopter fuel — it’s just 100LL AvGas — for both pumps. He keeps a jug of it at the mix trailer. I do the fueling.

Keeping the landing zone secure is pretty easy. On our last job, we were in a nice concrete loading area for a hay operation. Trucks did come and go, but in most cases, they saw Sean landing or sitting in the landing zone and waited until he was safely on the ground or had departed. Twice I tried to signal trucks to stop when I saw him coming in but they didn’t — both times they didn’t see the signal until it was too late and Sean aborted the landing. In our current landing zone, which is a dirt patch at the edge of the orchard, there’s a truck that comes and goes to haul out dead trees cut into firewood; the driver of that rig seems to pay attention and stops when I signal him.

Getting Physical

The job is extremely physical. All day long I’m walking around the trailer, truck, and helicopter; climbing up and down on the trailer’s mix station and truck bed; and hauling heavy hoses, fuel jugs, and cartons of chemical. And dropping to my knees (and then getting up) when I load the helicopter. And don’t even get me started with the pull cord on the helicopter’s pump, which I apparently pull too hard half the time.

I move at a quick pace, but I don’t run. Running is dangerous. Too easy to trip on a hose or a skid. Too many very hard things to crack your skull on if you fall. Anyone who runs while doing this job is an idiot.

But it can’t be too physical, right? After all, I’m a 55-year-old woman and I’m not in the best of shape. And I’m doing it all — although I’m exhausted at the end of the day.

Hours and Break Time

The job is weather dependent. We can’t work if it’s raining or likely to rain. We can’t work when the wind is more than 7 or 8 knots. We didn’t work Sunday because it was raining on and off all day and very windy.

But when we can work, we start early. We’re typically at the landing zone about an hour before dawn. Usually, Sean gets there first since he has more to do to get ready. He fills his truck’s fuel transfer tank with 100LL from the local airport. That can take 20-30 minutes. Then he comes back to the landing zone and, if the water tank is less than half full, he hooks it up to his truck and drags it to his water source and fills it. That’s another 20-30 minutes. Then he brings it back to the landing zone and positions it based on the wind direction, slipping 4×4 pieces of wood under the trucks rear wheels to bring the front end of the trailer up.

By that time it’s nearly dawn and I’ve arrived. I prep my work station by setting out chemical and anti-foam bottles in the trays on one side of the trailer and boxes for the empty bottles on the other. I suit up in the coveralls and get my knee pads on. While he’s preflighting the helicopter, I’m mixing the first batch of chemicals so I can load as soon as he starts up.

We work pretty much nonstop until we’re out of water. More math: If the trailer’s tank holds 1600 gallons and we’re using 50 gallons per load, we can do roughly 32 loads (1600 ÷ 50) before we’re completely out of water. That’s two 8-bottle cases of chemical. It’s also 80 acres. If you figure an average of 6 minutes per spray run/loading cycle, that’s about 3-1/4 hours.

When we’re out of water, I get my break because Sean has to fetch fuel and water using his truck. There’s nothing too difficult about doing any of it, but since I can really use a break after working that hard for that long, I won’t volunteer to do it. Instead, I strip off my protective gear, wash my hands (if I can), and take Penny for a walk. (She waits in the truck while I’m working.) Or sometimes I run out and get a bite to eat. Or eat a snack I’ve brought with me. That break lasts about an hour. Then it’s back to work all over again for another 3+ hours.

At the end of the day, we run three rinse cycles through all the equipment. I “mix” batches with just water. The first one usually includes some anti-foam stuff because the foam really gets out of hand if I don’t. The second two are straight water. I purposely overfill the mix tank on the third run to make sure the water gets all the way up the sides. Each load gets pumped into the helicopter and sprayed out to clean the spray rig.

Container
The most difficult thing I did on Saturday was to get this container open so I could lock up two cases of chemical.

Then we wind up the hoses, secure the helicopter — or bring it back to base if Sean is near his hangar — lock up any unused chemicals and empty bottles, and call it a night. By that time, it is night; we often do the rinse cycles in the dark. I bring a lantern so I can see.

It’s long day. A very long day. I’ll start at 6 and finish by 7 with two hour-long breaks in the middle of the day. That’s 11 hours of active work.

On Saturday, we worked for most of the day. Yesterday was Sunday and we would have worked all day if the weather was right. There are no “weekends” in this line of work.

So yeah: this job wouldn’t be very attractive to someone who prefers to sit on his ass all day.

But I’m getting a great workout. I know I am because every single muscle in my body was screaming at me this morning when I got out of bed. No pain, no gain, right?

Right?

Why I’m Doing It

Although Sean is paying me for this work and the pay isn’t bad, I’m not doing it for the money. I’m doing it for two reasons:

  • Sean is a friend and he really needs to get this business off the ground. Without a helper, he’d have to mix and load by himself. He’d likely only get a fraction of the acreage done each day. The first orchard I helped him with was 1,000 acres and he did have another part time helper. This one is about 500 acres and there is no other helper. It would take him well over a week to do it by himself. Together, we’ll knock it off in less than 4 days.
  • I have a natural curiosity about how things work. The best way to learn about something is hands on. I know a lot more about the spray business now than I did two weeks ago and that’s a real motivator for me.

We’re down in Turlock, CA for this job. It’s 100 miles from Sean’s base near Woodland, which is also where I’m camped out for the next few weeks. Although I wanted very much to bring my camper down here with me and live in the orchard, Sean needed me to tow the mix trailer while he towed his helicopter.

Spray Gear
Here we are on Friday morning, just before dawn, ready to head down to Turlock with the mix trailer behind my truck and helicopter trailer behind Sean’s.

I’m very glad I let him have his way. We’re staying in very comfortable rooms at what’s probably the nicest Best Western I’ve ever stayed in. After months of mostly living in my camper, I admit that it’s nice to have a good, long, hot shower every day. So that’s a bonus.

And isn’t that what life is all about? Doing different things? Seeing different things? Experiencing different things?

That’s what it’s all about for me.

But I admit that I do hope Sean finds a new helper for his next job. I’m not staying in California much longer and I’m ready to hang up my spray loader cap.