There is a very disturbing trend in our industry that we, as responsible operators need to address in the most expeditious way possible. The trend is that of civilian/hobbyist operators obstructing public safety from performing their assigned duties. More specifically we are seeing more and more people flying drones in and around the vicinity of the many large fires that are burning across the U.S. Many drone pilots are new to the world of aviation, and just because their quadcopter is easy for them to fly doesn’t mean it is that easy for the fire tankers and helicopters. Many times a tanker is loaded to the max with water or fire retardant, with the pilot knowing that when they dive into that burning canyon they will dump that heavy wet stuff and be able to climb out easily. But what happens if they get the “wave off” as they start their approach because a drone is in the pattern? I am sure that I am “preaching to the choir” to many of you, but we ALL must do what we can to assist in the education process that needs to take place.
Having spent several years as the chief drone pilot for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) was an invaluable experience for me. Operating one of five Superbat aircraft for the Wildland Urban Interface Fire Research Project when no protocols existed was a challenge. While we were studying how fire propagates, we were also establishing criteria for flight operations for both equipment selection and how it would be inserted into an emergency situation. This valuable experience has allowed us to figure out when our small birds would best be brought to use in some of the worst possible conditions that one can imagine. Congested airspace, multiple assets, radio frequency interference, personnel requirements all come into play when a “flight asset” is brought to a fire fight. And, make no mistake; these are deadly fights to save lives, property and wilderness.
Most people that have asked me just how they can get involved will know that my first and quickest answer is to study the National Incident Management System for Unified Command. Why? Because that is how that “machine” operates. NIMS is an operational manual on structure, coordination and where assets may fit, including when it gets turned on, why it is used, what the reporting requirements are, and most importantly WHO to communicate with. The last one is probably the most important of the bunch, because as a pilot, you have to be able to communicate where you are and what you see. This is above and beyond anything that the FAA will require of a pilot. Truth be told, many of these fires are covered by a TFR or Temporary Flight Restriction where the holder controls just who and when anyone flies in that airspace. If you have not been specifically invited to fly there, then you cannot fly there! The FAA isn’t even involved other than granting the TFR. It is up to ALL pilots to check whether a TFR is place in their area and to heed its boundaries. Yes, as a drone pilot, you or your neighbor could be arrested and charged with a felony offense should you obstruct the flight of emergency response aircraft.
So the solution is education. These “newbie” pilots need to know they can find out whether their area is under a TFR by using one of the many apps or websites available like www.skyvector.com or even the KnowBeforeYouFly app. If you are knowledgeable and see someone flying, then give them the friendly advice they need to be educated! If we do not start policing ourselves, the Federal government will come and do it for us.
Vice President/Co-Founder, Drone Pilot, Inc.
Member of Wimberley Fire Department, Wimberley Texas
Member of State Firefighters and Fire Marshals Association of Texas
President RPSearchServices, Inc.