Torqued: GA Flying in the Age of Drones

 - October 2, 2016, 10:17 AM

With new drone regulations taking effect at the end of August that are predicted to trigger a proliferation in the number of drones being used by commercial and government entities, there are several provisions that manned aircraft pilots—especially general aviation pilots—need to be aware of so they can ensure their own safety and, of course, the safety of their passengers and the people and property below them. With these new regulations—more than a decade in the making—it’s clear that the age of drones is upon us. To underscore the significance of these new regulations, the White House recently held a one-day event to “celebrate the potential of this technology.” Called the Workshop on Drones and the Future of Aviation, the event highlighted the potential of drones in so many disparate fields—from infrastructure inspection to disaster relief to precision agriculture and so much more. And, indeed, we can expect Amazon to continue to push for package delivery in the airspace where GA often flies.

So for those among us who have been hoping this technology would just go away, it’s time to accept that the economic promise of this new aviation technology—some experts predict an $82 billion industry in the U.S. and the creation of at least 100,000 jobs over the next 10 years—is going to make drones a huge player in aviation, and especially in the airspace where one day in the not-too-distant future drones and manned aircraft will be flying side-by-side. But for now, GA pilots need to be aware of what the new regulations allow so that they can take the appropriate actions to stay safe.

Safety: Everyone’s Obligation

While much has been written emphasizing the importance of drone pilots learning about the manned aircraft world and gaining the aeronautical knowledge necessary to share the skies safely, not nearly as much has been written about what manned aircraft pilots—especially GA pilots—need to know about the new drone rules that will affect the airspace in which they fly. This doesn’t mean the FAA has put the burden of seeing and avoiding drones on GA pilots; many small drones would be difficult if not impossible for GA pilots to see. Drone pilots are responsible under the new rules for “yielding the right of way to all aircraft, airborne vehicles and reentry vehicles.” In addition, there is a prohibition on operating “so close to another aircraft as to cause a collision hazard.” The regulation specifies what yielding the right of way means: the drone “must give way to the aircraft or vehicle and may not pass over, under or ahead of it unless well clear.” In addition to the requirement to yield the right of way, drone pilots cannot interfere with “operations and traffic patterns at any airport, heliport or seaport.”

But even though drones have the responsibility to avoid manned aircraft, GA and other manned aircraft have the responsibility to comply with Federal Aviation Regulations that apply to them, especially minimum safe altitudes. Drones will be allowed to fly in areas that GA pilots need to be aware of so that they can maintain the necessary altitude and traffic pattern discipline that will keep them away from possible drone operations.

For example, while many believe that drones can’t legally operate higher than 400 feet, that is not correct. The new rules allow certified drone operators to fly above 400 feet when the drone “is flown within 400 feet of a structure and does not fly higher than 400 feet above the structure’s immediate uppermost limit.” Knowing that drones can legally operate at 400 feet above the height of structures, GA pilots need to consider the importance of complying with minimum safe altitudes above structures even in rural or sparsely populated areas. Flying too low has been a cause of far too many GA accidents. And, yes, I know the thrill of racing close to the ground. I was a pilot years before I ever held a wrench. In fact, I soloed before I could legally drive a car, at the age of 15. Flying was different then, even in the areas around Boston where I grew up and learned to fly. So much less congestion, in the air and on the ground. But times have changed and the vigilance required to stay safe in many areas continues to evolve to meet the changes in the airspace.

In addition to the new rules allowing drones to operate above 400 feet when close to structures, the new rules also allow small UAS pilots to fly near airports that are in uncontrolled airspace without any approval or notification to the airport or ATC. As I mentioned earlier, drone pilots are required to yield the right of way to manned aircraft and not to interfere with airport operations and traffic patterns. But this means GA pilots flying at airports in uncontrolled airspace need to be aware that drones could be operating in the airport vicinity and, of course, be aware of the traffic pattern for the airport and maintain pattern discipline when flying in and out of those airports, which, of course, is critical to safety even without drones. 

Although drone pilots will need ATC permission before flying in “Class B, Class C or Class D airspace or within the lateral boundaries of the surface area of Class E airspace,” it’s likely that in some controlled airspace, ATC approval will become fairly routine with appropriate mitigations, such as the issuance of notams.  So, yes, here’s another reason why checking notams is important. I have investigated many a general aviation crash where the failure to check notams was a direct or contributing cause of an accident. 

As the FAA’s drone rules open up a new age of unmanned aircraft operations, GA pilots need to do their part to keep the system safe for all users.