Opinion: Ruffled Feathers

By John Wyman, EAA 462533, Chapter 266 Montreal

Flying has always had an underlying basic meaning. If you tell someone that you are about to “go flying,” then you are presumed to be getting into a structure, be it an airplane, a glider, etc. The one common to all is the pilot, at the controls, physically in the craft. This is what motivates us to do it — be it the serenity, the peacefulness, the challenge; whatever your reasons may be. Author Lauran Paine, Jr., once summed it up best with the description that it gives you “Perspective” (EAA Sport Aviation – May 2003).  His definition has stuck with me since I first read it and I’ve borrowed it many times when talking to people about what you “GET” from flying.

Simply put, that “Perspective” is what no other earthling (I sound like Marvin Martian out of Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century there) can get when he/she leaves the ground. It starts with a simple, “Oh, so this is what everything is like from up here” and it ends with, “Geez, that was really fun. Let’s do it again!” After the flight, you’re left with playing it over and over in your head connecting the dots. That’s how you learn things about the craft. Hashing it out, so that you can review it the next time you experience the same sensation. There are things like g forces, compass headings, where the sun comes up and goes down, wind (and how it’s relative to takeoffs and landings or a pitiful ground speed), the size of towns, tracks, lakes, you name it. Perspective.

But where does that perspective begin? It probably starts with the same forces that act on us on the ground. Sight, sound, smell, and touch. Then, when you’re up in the air, everything else is new. The clouds stretch out on the horizon forever, you now see how the rivers flow, referencing how the ground rises or falls but your altitude remains constant; how a rain storm looks completely different. Heck, you can see behind the cloud if you just move over to one side a bit, and so on.


Hobby drones that stray afar…

Officially, on paper with Transport Canada, they are known as Remotely Piloted Aircraft System(s) or RPAS for short. For ease of understanding, let’s just keep that as “drones.” I am sure the official section of CARs was titled differently to be all encompassing. It’s an advancing field with technological changes happening very quickly. There are in fact two categories of licenses within CARs section IX – Basic and Advanced. Then there’s the hobby drone. Below 250 grams no license is required. But that still doesn’t prevent the hobbyist from buying something heavier and infringing on the law with or without a license. That’s where I’d like to focus this article. 

Drone operators can’t experience any of what I just mentioned about perspective. In fact, remove yourself from the craft, and all you have left is sight. None of the basic senses are there, except what you see — the drone, within sight. They are removed from it, not necessarily thinking about the bigger picture. The hobbyists may think this way. Experienced drone operators are in a different category. Drones used commercially exact an even higher standard. It’s probably correct to assume that most collisions with aircraft aren’t from them. They’re in the business and have a lot to lose if they cause trouble. I am talking of people who order a drone online and assemble it right out of the box. Some say that this is where the problem lies. There isn’t much guidance when the box is opened. No warnings about airspace in some cases, no labels saying that it’s your responsibility to look up the regulations. Here you go — “Go at er’!” There isn’t much else from the conversations that I have had with these drone operators that remotely links them with flying an aircraft. They are not pilots in the true sense of the word.


Pilots vs. Operators

Pilots are intimately more aware of their surroundings than drone operators. There is no physical contact between the drone and the operator controlling it. Nonetheless, they are up there in the same atmosphere as us, so I suppose this is why TC created a separate category for them in the CARs. They should be regulated as pilots are, but should they be referred to as “pilots”? I think not. However you refer to them, my perception is that some organizations are trying to bring them into the fold with the idea that if they are inclusive, drone operators will eventually cross over into our higher altitudes, someday. Tough to say what the motive is. Over the past years (decades even), I haven’t seen an increase in the number of 172s and homebuilts in the sky on any given bright sunny Sunday, so maybe that’s their goal.

A parallel can be drawn between the legacy radio-controlled model aircraft and a drone. What’s really the difference anyway? One can hover indefinitely and the other can’t. Both use propellers to fly and both are supposed to be flown within line of sight. I don’t think there ever was a concerted effort to bring members of the MAAC (that’s the Model Aeronautics Association of Canada) into the ranks of COPA over the many years I have been a member. So why drones? It’s probably because drones have a much farther range than radio-controlled airplanes — having the ability to carry a payload over long distances using different frequencies, LIDAR (an advanced form of light radar), and GPS for navigation. Numbers are also likely a factor. Drone purchases have exploded in recent years. Again, I am not an expert, but these are likely the underlying reasons. Nonetheless, whether its flying RCs or drones, the differences between them and full-scale aircraft are evident, although, I would argue that there is a little bit more stick and rudder (with a handheld box) with an RC Extra 330 model than a bug-like frame with propellers.

Yet, how is it that collisions are still happening and we (airline pilots) are told to be on the lookout for them in the air? This is a joke in my books because, I for one, can’t see that far on the horizon (especially something not that much bigger than my two hands held together!), while flying along at 140 knots on final approach to try and dodge one at the last second when it is “spotted.” Good luck there.

Some model clubs go so far as to ban drones from being operated on their facilities, primarily because these are ready-made devices that don’t promote their recreational sport (building) or their modus operandi behind flying model aircraft – which, naturally, do require a runway for take-off.

You could argue that everyone should be invited to the table. Maybe. As it is, I think a lot of newcomers to flying have been encouraged to fly and the regulations have been very accommodating for them to do so. We do have ultralights, which, at one time during their birth were considered as a stepping stone into GA. Arguably that never really happened. Yet the difference again between them and the drones is that the pilot is occupying a seat. That responsibility weighs on you. It forces you to look at the map, stay informed, be proactive, do your research. It says, “Yeah, I’d better play by the rules.” So, if the owners of those drones are keen enough to find out (and that’s the big IF here), they’ll learn that they’re also subject to the same regulations that we all follow in the sky. The good news here is that there is a concerted effort from those within the ranks of the drone community to educate newcomers to their hobby/profession. I have fielded a few questions from hobby drone operators wanting to fly at my own airport. There was room for improvement on their understanding of what the airspace was around the airport. In one case, I denied them permission to use the airport to take off and land, citing CARs section IX (e.g. the basic rules). I asked some questions that they didn’t have answers to. Do you know the frequency on this aerodrome? Do you have a handheld radio to listen in on “traffic”? Are you aware of what the circuit pattern is if the wind is favoring runway 35?

The impact of a police drone on a Cessna 172 on landing at the Buttonville Airport in August of 2021. This event is now used as a case study by police services for what not to do!

The rogue drone operator

This is where it’s important to stress that not all drone operators are cowboys of the air. Like any cross-section of society, you’ll always have those that want to bend the rules. The problem here is that there isn’t much control in the marketplace preventing someone from going out and buying a high-performance drone and doing as they please with it. In fact, a professional drone integrator (specializing in the emergency services sector), recently confessed to me that the breakneck speed with which the industry is growing and changing is perhaps the greatest challenge facing it. One drone manufacturer just produced a drone that weighs in at 249 grams (to subvert a license requirement to operate it) that has incredible performance for its weight. He equated the current regulations for drones to the boating industry which, two decades ago, went through a complete overhaul with regard to water regulations and the operation of personal craft, like the Sea-Doo and Jet-Ski. It too had to adapt its regulations after a new product was introduced. Drones are very similar. For the most part, the regulations arrived after their introduction and are continuing to evolve with their increasing use. He also thinks that basic and advanced licenses of TC have gone a long way towards reducing the number of rogue operators that pose a threat to aircraft, but, like anything, there is still room for improvement. Specifically, he knew of a few people who abandoned the exam process for their advanced licenses after failing several times. He noted that education is the key to preventing airspace incursions and that there really should be an effort at more awareness at the lower weight end of the drone scale for newcomers to the hobby. His analysis of most collisions determined that more often than not, these hobbyists were not intent on causing an accident. They just got too far out of their area of intended flight. Generally speaking, the more the user gets adept at using their drone and improving their understanding of our airspace, the more conscientious they become of our reality and vice versa.

Professional drone operators meticulously plan their flights, taking into account the surroundings and goals of the mission. They use the latest technologies to give them real-time information. A good operator can interpret this information to properly handle the changing conditions and variables that the drone encounters.


The case for more education

At this point, the onus is on drone operators to get educated about their use in airspace. More precisely, they should at least read the rules outlined in section IX of the CARs. I find it disconcerting that there is little information readily available to the operator, upon opening the box, that it is your responsibility to check out the rules and adhere to them before you collide with an airplane in flight. It’s really a wild-west scenario: you are supposed to know all the rules before mounting your horse.

The regulations are not easy to read. They never have been. There are many subsections to read to understand the bigger picture, but here are some important points to pass along if asked about them:

  • The maximum altitude for their operation is 400 feet AGL, unless you get an SFOC (Special Flight Operations Certificate) from Transport to fly higher. (CARS 901.25 (1) and (2))
  • Unless you have a deal worked out with the airport owner and a procedure in place to fly a drone, it isn’t permitted within 3 miles from an airport or 1 mile from a heliport. (CARS 901.47 (1) and (2))

In the end, I suppose it is worthwhile trying to be inclusive vs. exclusive to drone operators using their assigned airspace to conduct activities. We aren’t “gods of the sky” to force them from operating their machines. Realities of the marketplace with door-to-door parcel delivery will quickly dictate otherwise if these companies have their way. But, do the rogue drone operators have the same passion for all things aviation as we have for our craft that have a saddle? I would take a guess that overall they do not and that their motive might be more sensational, like, for example, getting their video posted on YouTube. It might be trite and not correct to say it, but I know if I am operating a drone (yes, I have fiddled with them a bit), I’m not getting that same buzz aside from the sound it makes.

A drone operator who also happens to be a real pilot (surprise, surprise!) summed it up when he said, “You can’t really compare a bicycle to a motorcycle. Both have wheels, but they aren’t the same thing.” Ditto for the drone operator and pilot — they both have propellers on the machines that they fly, but they are not equals.


John’s a self-proclaimed airport bum. When he isn’t in the saddle at the airline, he can be found out at the airfield doing any number of things. He likes to fly gliders, practice aerobatics, work on airplanes and fix stuff…


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