Flying Unmanned Aircraft: The Next Aviation Boom

While pursuing a degree in unmanned aircraft, an aviation student hones his world-class piloting skills.

Aviation Careers Bobby Breeden

Aviation Careers Bobby Breeden

** Now that Bobby Breeden has mastered Short Field
Take Offs and Landings, he continues honing his skill
set by studying Unmanned Aircraft Systems Science.**

Bobby Breeden's great-grandfather dreamed of becoming a pilot and exploring Alaska, passions that inspired Bobby's father, Bob, who today flies bush airplanes and develops real estate in the Last Frontier State. Now Bobby, an Unmanned Aircraft Systems Science (UASS) student, has put his own short and sweet stamp on that legacy: He's a four-time winner of Alaska's famed Valdez Short Field Take Off and Landing (STOL) competition and a YouTube celebrity. "It's pretty special to think something like that can transfer through a family," says Bobby.

When Bobby was growing up, his father kept a Super Cub on the family property in Virginia, and they frequently visited the nearby Flying Circus Aerodrome in Bealeton. "That also influenced me to want to be part of aviation," Bobby says. Soon after starting lessons at age 14 he saw a video of the Valdez STOL competition and "just got hooked," he recalls. "I wanted to compete." Besides, he adds, "I knew the skills of being able to land wherever you want and to stop short would help me tremendously with real-world flying."

Bobby began training, his father coaching via radio, as he refined his skills over thousands of landings, practicing "sometimes 15 minutes a day, sometimes three hours." Bobby also watched videos of backcountry operations, "learning everything about technique, breaking it down, seeing what I could improve."

He earned his license in 2011, just in time to enter that year's Valdez competition, taking fourth place. Bobby was back in Valdez for the 2012 contest, where he took first place, which he's now won every year since for a total of four titles. This year he competed in an experimental airplane that he and his father designed and built and set a new world record for shortest landing in competition: 20 feet.

Bobby is low-key about his accomplishments, even as his YouTube videos have become the ones bush enthusiasts watch to learn from. "They pulled up videos of mine [in class] and used them for a demonstration, and at that point I said, ‘That's me.' They thought I was lying at first," he says. He gets fan mail too, from people asking "what it takes to be a bush pilot, or if I can take them on photo flights."

So why is a record-setting bush pilot studying UASS?

Four-time winner of Alaska's Valdez Short Field Take Off and Landing Competition, Bobby Breeden dreams of one day designing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles for a defense company.| "It will be just like the next computer boom, and I'll get my foot in the door and have a degree," Bobby says. "I would love to work for a defense company and design UAVs, or work in the R&D department and take all these skills I've developed with designing and modifying and testing new airplanes and transfer them to UAVs."

But first he'd like a summer job flying for a Part 135 operator in Alaska, where he could earn $20,000 to $25,000 the first season. "But I don't think I'll spend my career flying in Alaska," he says, before admitting an interest in starting a backcountry touring company and perhaps marketing the airplanes that he and his father design. Meanwhile, he'll be in Valdez for the next STOL contest, doubtless inspiring more backcountry dreamers. Says Bobby, "I feel we're really setting the example for what's possible."

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