Sky Kings: Mastering the Third Dimension

Embracing drone pilots is in the best interest of the entire aviation community.

Drone Illustration
Drones are helping more people explore the third dimension.Illustration by Shutterstock

It was a whole new world to us. From the air, John and I saw the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Ocean, and what was to become our new hometown in California — all on our first cross-country after we got our licenses. We were hooked. From that time on, our lives were different. Our love affair with flying only became more intense over time.

What makes flying so special? There are so many things. It provides such spectacular views. It allows personal travel at great speeds unimpeded by the limitations of roads. It is deeply rewarding, because it engages you so completely and uses so many aptitudes. But at the core, it is the mastery of the third dimension that changes everything.

Humankind has forever yearned to fly. Only in the comparatively minuscule time since the Montgolfier brothers took to the air in their hot-air balloons has it been possible. Since then, every landmark achievement in aviation has taken on great importance and been exuberantly celebrated by the world.

Flying has amplified importance on a personal basis too. Every pilot will forever remember his or her first solo flight and each new rating. Mention to acquaintances that you fly, and they’ll recall it every time they see you.

The heightened importance that flying takes on has its obvious good side, but it also has a bad side. For example, accidents that go unnoticed when they occur in land vehicles make national news if they occur in aircraft.

Every pilot will forever remember his or her first solo flight and each new rating. Mention to acquaintances that you fly, and they’ll recall it every time they see you.

Also, there is a generalized fear of anything that inhabits the third dimension. There is a ban against flying anything in the Capitol area, no matter how small. When Doug Hughes landed on the west lawn of the Capitol building in his gyrocopter, which could barely carry him and maybe another 50 pounds, it made national news and got him a prison sentence. In contrast, there is no ban on driving to the Capitol in a rental truck with a 10,000-pound payload.

Sometimes I wonder if neighborhood noise complaints are actually expressing personal fears. Decades ago when our local airport wanted to extend the main runway by 1,200 feet, thousands of alarmed neighbors showed up at town meetings to complain about the noise from the airport. When noise monitors were sent to the homes of the most vociferous complainers, they were unable to measure any sound above the ambient noise from a nearby freeway.

Yet these neighbors were clearly deeply concerned. Maybe it just seemed more reasonable and acceptable to say the noise bothered them than to say they were afraid an airplane would crash into their houses.

In addition, the third dimension also creates concern about invasion of privacy. John and I felt this the other day when a quadcopter hovered nearby while we were in our hot tub. (Yes, we were wearing swimsuits.) The drone had a vantage point from which it could also see in our windows. It did us no harm, but we did feel that it infringed on our privacy.

After more than 100 years of flying, we have only about 200,000 aircraft on the FAA registry, whereas in about six months, there were 500,000 registrations for drones. And most drone owners we know say they have no plans to register theirs.

This helped us better understand the neighbor at one of the town meetings who complained that word had obviously gotten out to pilots that his daughter liked to sunbathe in the backyard. He said airplanes were lining up to overfly his house. Even if he knew he lived underneath the downwind leg of the airport’s traffic pattern, I think he would still feel his privacy was being infringed on.

Technology has now enabled a completely new way of exploring the third dimension, albeit vicariously. The result is the tidal wave of drone flying that is washing over us. It is destined to take both the good sides and bad sides of our exploitation of the third dimension to whole new levels. After more than 100 years of flying, we have only about 200,000 aircraft on the FAA registry, whereas in about six months, there were 500,000 registrations for drones. And most drone owners we know say they have no plans to register theirs. The FAA forecasts that 4.8 million drones will be sold in the United States in 2017, and 7 million per year by 2020.

In an effort to gain some measure of control, the FAA issued Part 107, setting forth the rules for commercial operation of drones that weigh less than 55 pounds. What the FAA calls a Remote Pilot certificate is required for anyone who wants to do anything that makes money with drones. To get the certificate, a nonpilot applicant just has to pass a knowledge test. You can fully expect to see a lot of commercial drone operators soon.

The good news for pilots is that you don’t even have to pass a knowledge test to get a Remote Pilot certificate. The FAA has a two-hour online course that includes a slam-dunk, multiple-choice exam in which you keep retaking the questions until you get them right. Submit your completion certificate to the FAA and you will have Remote Pilot added to your pilot certificate. The bad news for pilots is that any infraction while acting as pilot in command of an unmanned aircraft puts their pilot certificates at risk.

If even a tiny percentage of drone pilots move on to manned aircraft, the benefit to the aviation community could be huge.

This inevitable flood of drones will enable millions of people to exploit the third dimension and likely have profound effects on the aviation community. Most of the millions of drones will be used by hobbyists. Many pilots, including John and me, first explored aviation with model airplanes. Compared with the number of modelers, the number of drone pilots is exponentially greater. If even a tiny percentage of drone pilots move on to manned aircraft, the benefit to the aviation community could be huge.

Drones can also exacerbate concerns about fear and invasion of privacy. John and I witnessed a teenager flying a drone over a neighbor’s yard. It didn’t take him more than five minutes to lose control of it, and it went down on the other side of the neighbor’s fence. Of course, the teenager jumped the fence to retrieve it. Had the neighbor seen this, he most certainly would have considered it an invasion of privacy. If drone pilots become thought of as bad actors, the public reaction is likely to be damaging to the aviation community as a whole.

It is in everyone’s best interest for us to embrace these new drone pilots. We should invite them to the airport, take them flying. Only by welcoming them to our community can we hope to help them fully understand the combination of joy and responsibility that can be theirs from experiencing the third dimension directly. Maybe our aviation associations should do the same thing. Should these new pilots be members of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, Experimental Aircraft Association and National Business Aviation Association?