I hope you have all had a very Happy Thanksgiving.
The point of this post is to show how piloting perspectives differ between inhabited aircraft and drones. It is more than just the obvious, the fact that a regular airplane pilot flies their aircraft from the inside, while a drone operator flies it from outside. This post is all about perspective. How someone sees something certainly impacts how they will react to things. We hope that some clarification of different perspectives will be helpful both in showcasing differences and finding common ground.
For a pilot of an inhabited aircraft, flying represents a form of freedom, and the ability to change perspective at will, from takeoff, through climbout, leveloff and cruise. A regular airplane pilot will see many things during the course of a flying day, from a dawn patrol sunrise flight through an early evening sunset. They will directly experience wind, turbulence, and the onset of stormy weather, from a perspective denied that to people on the ground. Most importantly of all, they will experience both thrills and chills, as the challenges of the flying environment manifest throughout a flight. For some it is a time to play, for others it is their job. But for both, flying represents stepping away from the known world into a realm far to few really get to experience.
For drone pilots with an RC aircraft background, flying initially came about as something fun, something different. Many in the drone community started flying RC aircraft when young, and graduated to more sophisticated systems. Still, their perspective is that of an outsider looking in, unless First Person View (FPV) is brought into the equation. When dealing with FPV, you are dealing with a unique hybrid of both realms, where you can virtually experience flying, yet remain safely on the ground. The military has known this for years, and initially went the path of having trained military aviators fly military drone systems. As time went on, however, they developed a UAS specific career path, which is now bringing in many qualified operators who do a fantastic job in flying high tech uninhabited systems.
It is a given that the FAA has followed the lead of the military in certifying drone pilots. Hence, the requirement that all Section 333 exemption operators hold at least a Sport Pilot rating. Though some may find this an unduly burdensome requirement, from the perspective of the FAA, standard pilots do bring a lot to the table. They are vetted by TSA, have an understanding of Airspace and Weather, and possess knowledge of Regulations and a Pilot Certificate that can be taken away in case of a violation. This will change, and though welcome for many, a form of perspective will be lost when this happens.
One thing the FAA is trying to do that bears watching is their classification of drones as regular aircraft, from the smallest 251 gram toy that may soon need to be registered, to the largest systems flying today. By classifying ALL DRONES as Aircraft, the FAA is legally binding all drone operators as Pilots. This is clearly stated in both the new proposed rules for consumer operators, and by the head of the FAA himself in his recent remarks concerning consumer drone registration. From the FAA’s perspective Pilot in Command Responsibility will apply to all. Therefore, our posts on this responsibility aren’t just an academic exercise, they highlight rules that apply to everyone who flies.
Another key difference between regular aircraft and drone pilots is the consequences of failure. A crash in a regular aircraft can cause severe injury and possible death, both for people in the aircraft and on the ground. That is something all regular airplane pilots MUST think about every time they fly. It guides their every action, and woe unto anyone who believes this isn’t so. Most commercial grade drones do not have such a level of danger. They are sophisticated tools, but something 55 lbs or under isn’t likely to hurt someone unless they land directly on them. A plane crashing on a house can have terrible consequences for those inside, even the biggest 55 lb drone would probably not hurt the occupants inside. There is a financial penalty and legal issues may arise, but if a drone crashes, it just isn’t the same thing as an airplane with humans aboard.
This brings us to another different perspective, that between drone pilots and regular fliers while flying. Both can suffer from limited visibility and blind spots. People on both sides are beginning to square off into different Pro and Anti-Drone Camps. As someone who is moving from inhabited aircraft to drones, I can clearly see this dynamic at work. Drone pilots want minimum restrictions so they can do their jobs, something laudable as long as it does not cause safety issues for regular aircraft. On the other hand, regular airplane pilots know the sky is a big place, they just want to keep irresponsible operators for operating in any manner unsafe to aircraft.
So where is the middle ground between these two groups. Personally, I believe it boils down to the fact that we are all PILOTS, whether you fly a 251 Gram Quadcopter all the way to the Captain of an Airbus A380. If you manipulate the controls, you are flying an aircraft, and therefore are acting as a Pilot. The FAA says so, so I’ll take it from them. If you fly an airplane of any type…YOU ARE A PILOT.
So how can we all get along. First of all by establishing a professional level of trust many layers thick. Irresponsible pilots of all types are found out by reputation. The same will happen to drone pilots. We can all realize the sky is big enough to share, as long as we keep to our assigned spaces and understand the big picture of what is going up there. If you realize the FAA is a referee of the vast flying circus that occurs over our heads every day, you’ll see that registration isn’t an excessive burden, merely the ticket to the show. The National Airspace is a wonder to behold, and as pilots we owe it to everyone who flies to do our part to maintain it as safely as possible.