Before You Buy a Drone For Christmas… You May Need a Pilot’s License

Posted on December 1, 2014


Once again, the ignorant and the reckless ruin everyone’s fun.


Last spring at my Dad’s old house, I looked out to see someone poking around suspiciously on the road in front of the house. I’m not shy; I went to investigate.

It was a real estate photographer, hired by the neighbor to shoot aerial footage of their property. He was using one of these new easy-to-fly drones with four propellers and a camera, and he could simultaneously control the drone and watch the video in real-time as he recorded sweeping views of the neighbor’s grounds. Impressive, I thought. I asked some questions about battery life, flight time, effective range of the controls, and so on. The photographer explained that the drone had to stay within sight and below 400 feet. One nice feature was that once the battery gets to about 15% or so, the drone automatically returns to its start point, using GPS navigation, and lands itself. It all seemed well-thought-out.


Ha, ha, silly me. The photographer had been so professional, so knowledgeable, and so competent, that Lila momentarily forgot that any moron with a few hundred bucks can just run out and buy one of these things, and immediately crash it into the side of a building… or perhaps into the side of an airliner.

Indeed, the FAA says it has seen “hundreds” of instances of privately-operated drones being flown dangerously close to aircraft (the people-bearing kind). Radio-controlled hobby aircraft are supposed to be kept below 400 feet, 5 miles away from airports, and within line-of-sight of the operator. And yet, pilots of passenger jets have reported spotting drones at 1,300 feet, 1,900 feet and even 4,000 feet of altitude, and in airport zones around LaGuardia, for example, and Dulles. They have come within a few dozen feet of actual passenger craft. Clearly, these drone operators are completely clueless about the existing rules, or they just don’t care. And drones have exploded onto the popular scene in a way that radio-controlled hobby aircraft never have before.

The FAA is not amused, and neither are the pilots of the passenger planes involved in the near-misses. With countless new and inexperienced drone owners eager to launch their new quad-copters for business or pleasure… or maybe to let their kids try their hands at it with little more preparation or knowledge than a glance at the quick-start guide … the FAA is quite right to step in and reaffirm the rules for hobby aircraft, and to set new rules for any commercial use of unmanned aircraft.

The current proposal could be better thought-out, but the big kicker is that the FAA wants to require drone operators to get a pilot’s license… a real, no-kidding, airplane pilot’s license… to fly the things. There has been much lamentation over this, and Lila, who actually has a pilot’s license, can tell you why: because first, you have a ground school where you learn aerodynamics, basic aircraft mechanics, weather, navigation, FAA regulations, how to read aviation charts to include such details as restricted airspaces, proper radio procedures, flight patterns around airports, how to file a flight plan, and more. There is even math involved! Exciting, huh? Ground school is not particularly fun or easy (not everyone in Lila’s class passed).  When hobbyists or would-be commercial drone users hear that they might have to get a license, this is what they are thinking about: the difficulty, the pain in the rear (and wallet).

Well, the ground school is the important part. It’s the part any pilot in the air will want drone operators to have. It’s the part that teaches you how not to run into other aircraft… all too easy to dismiss when you are in the mind-set that you’re safely on the ground and “just playing with a toy,” or “flying a lightweight piece of equipment,” as if it could not possibly bring a passenger craft down.

No aircraft, whether drone or manned, small or large, commercial or just a toy, belongs at 4,000 feet in an airport zone… unless it is being flown by a pilot.