The Journey Toward a Remote Pilot Certificate

Agency still has a few kinks in the system.

UAS Drone Certificate
The FAA predicts 600,000 drones could be flying in U.S. airspace by the end of the year.Don McCullough/Creative Commons

Yesterday, the FAA's Part 107 small UAS rule took effect, essentially eliminating the need for commercial drone operators to file time-consuming exemption paperwork to use their machines, as long as pilots abide by Part 107, of course.

The agency's explanation yesterday of efforts to minimize risk to people on the ground and in the air also came with a prediction that 600,000 drones could be flying in U.S. airspace by year's end. The FAA's announcement Monday also made it clear that UAS operations in Class G airspace require no ATC approval. Operations inside Class B, C or D airspace must obtain prior approval before the flight via a waiver application.

Because Part 107 now demands commercial drone pilots be licensed, this Flying editor took the Part 107 sUAS online course for a test drive to get a closer look at what the agency is teaching would-be drone pilots. If I did not already possess a pilot certificate and a current flight review, I would have been required to take a separate knowledge test on the road to earning a remote pilot certificate.

The online course for licensed pilots requires registration at FAASafety.gov. Once logged in, the course is presented in chapters divided into topics such as the characteristics of sUAS aircraft, crew resource management, recommended maintenance procedures, safe loading decisions, effects of weather on UAS operation, as well as abnormal and emergency UAS procedures.

Most licensed pilots shouldn’t find the UAS course content too difficult. The FAA expects applicants to spend about two hours making their way through the content, with each chapter led by a Flash video explaining what follows. After digesting a few chapters composed of about 15 to 18 slides, the chapters became longer, many with nearly three dozen slides. The content also begins adding regular two- and three-question quizzes along the way. There’s no restriction on taking notes as you go along to use as guidance during the test, so have a pad of paper and pen handy before you begin.

Most licensed pilots shouldn’t find the UAS course content too difficult. The FAA expects applicants to spend about two hours making their way through the content, with each chapter led by a Flash video explaining what follows.

I spent about an hour and a half working my way through the content until reaching a 31-question final exam that I managed to pass the first time. At this point, the applicant is told to log out of the course in order to process the course validation. That’s where things went a bit haywire for me.

After hitting the course “exit” button, the system took me back to the FAASafety login page with no explanation of what to do next. I clicked on the support email labeled support@faasafety.gov, where I explained the problem. A few minutes later, I received a note telling me the support email inbox was no longer active.

About halfway through yesterday’s press conference announcing Part 107, I sent the presenters a question about my certification plight. The response suggested, “If you have a general question, comment, or complaint about UAS, please contact us via email at UAShelp@faa.gov or call 844-FLY-MY-UA.” How anyone would have known while inside the course material is anyone’s guess.

A nice FAA lady at the other end of the toll-free number, though, connected me with a helpful Aviation Safety Inspector, who quickly realized the testing instruction system had a few cracks. He explained problems with the navigation bar at the bottom of the testing screen and explained the steps to solve the problem. It was here the inspector also mentioned that the 31-question exam I’d finished really wasn’t the final exam and how to log back in and locate the actual 35-question final. I doubt many people would have figured this out without someone to guide them through this maze.

Once I was logged back in, I dove right into the real final. The test must be completed in one sitting within 90 minutes. Not too much to sweat on this test, though, if applicants think 35 questions conducted open-book and multiple choice, although the exam does require 100 percent to pass. Don’t let the 100 grade throw you, because the exam points out your mistakes and offers another chance to choose the correct answer, a process that continues until the applicant receives a 100 percent grade. My first attempt netted me only one error, which I quickly corrected. Before I knew it, the graduation certificate was in my waiting hands.

UAS Certificate Part 107
The sUAS online course graduation certificate.Courtesy Rob Mark

Of course, earning the graduation certificate is only one step toward becoming a certified remote pilot. Next I headed to the Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application (IACRA) site to fill out the online data to be reviewed by another CFI or a Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE). I felt like I was in the home stretch, which I quickly learned was a bit premature. One tip for applicants at the IACRA site: Apparently, the trick to convincing IACRA to accept a copy of the graduation certificate along with the application data is logging in and out a few times before the effort is successful.

That left only finding a DPE to review my graduation certificate, picture ID and sign off my application as the final hurdle. Although a CFI could also sign the paperwork, CFIs are not able to hand over a temporary airman certificate.

This is where things again became a bit sticky. One DPE friend told me only a handful of FAA examiners are set up to make the conversion and deliver a temporary airman certificate in the process. Worse news is that no one is quite sure just who those DPEs are, or what the solution is for the thousands of airmen like me, who have completed all the requirements and are awaiting their temporary certificates.

The FAA says some fixes are already in the works, though, so stay tuned.