HOW TO... get a PfCO to fly a drone: Days one and two of Ground School

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I mentioned a while ago that I’d decided to get a PfCO (Permission for Commercial Operations) to fly a drone, or as those in the know like to call them, an SUAS (Small Unmanned Aircraft System). After buying a DJI Mavic Air a few weeks back, yesterday I took my first step towards getting what’s often referred to as a ‘drone license’ with the first day of ground school.

Ground school takes you through the theory element of the Civil Aviation Authority’s (CAA) requirements to get a PfCO. It is possible to do this through home-study, but Aerial Motion Pictures has a strong reputation and they’re based within an easy drive of my house, so I decided to sign-up and attend one of their ‘ICARUS’ courses.

There is a three-day ‘Pro’ course, but figuring I could add the night flying training at a later date, I opted for the two day ‘Standard’ version.

Ground School Day One

Our tutor, Tom was at pains to point out that day one is the toughest part of the course because that’s when most of the technical information is imparted. There’s a bit more on day two, but it’s mixed with some planning exercises and the exam.

After brief introductions, Tom launched into an explanation of all the key terms and acronyms. There are quite a few, but before you know it you’re dropping SUAS, SUSA (Small Unmanned Surveillance Aircraft) and PIC (Pilot In Command) into the conversation.

The second module centred around the principles of flight and why wings and propellers are the shape they are, as well as how an aircraft’s movement can be controlled. I’ve never been especially interested in aeroplanes or flying, but I found this section fascinating. Until then I’d not given a moment’s thought to how a four-rotor craft banks or turns.

After lunch, we moved onto meteorology, the potential hazards that weather can pose and the factors that you need to take into account. I found the toughest part of this was understanding the METAR (Meteorological Actual Report) and TAF (Terminal Aerodrome Forecast) data which looks like a line of WWII code. Thankfully, after practising on a few examples, I think I’ve got it.

Airspace and Operating Principles

In this module, we covered how flight information is mapped so that we can work out where we can and cannot fly in the UK.

In fact, if your aircraft is under 7Kg and you have the landowner’s permission, you have quite a bit of freedom to fly. Even controlled airspace is OK, but it’s sensible to contact the local air traffic controller to let them know what you’re up to. If you’re piloting a craft of over 7Kg, you ring for permission.

Operations Manual

The Operations Manual is widely regarded as one of the most onerous aspects of obtaining a PfCO. Although it can take a while to prepare properly, it’s essentially just a detailed breakdown of how you intend to use your drone, all the relevant information about it and the procedures you will follow.

Aerial Motion Pictures provides a template that you can follow to write your manual, but if you prefer, you can commission someone to write it for you. Whichever method you opt for its production, it’s important that it’s your Operations Manual, that you follow it carefully and that it’s updated if you change how you work.

Naturally, risk assessment is a major part of planning a flight and we were taken through a simple assessment process. 

LiPo Batteries

In the final module of day one, we covered the safe use of Lithium Polymer batteries. This isn’t required for the PfCO, but given their volatility, it’s a sensible inclusion. Tom passed on a few tips like numbering the batteries to ensure they get used in sequence and age at the same rate and storing them at roughly half capacity to preserve their life.

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Day Two

We kicked-off day two of ground school with a module about ‘Human Factors’. With over 70% of aviation accidents and incidents being caused by human error, it makes sense that the CCA requires candidates to spend some time looking at the type of problems that humans are likely to create and how to make best use of everyone involved in a drone flight.

This segued into a discussion about risk assessment and minimisation. Most activities seem to require some form of risk assessment these days, but when you think about the repercussions of a 1Kg or more weight with pointy bits falling out of the sky, you appreciate the significance of it for drone flight. If you’re not convinced, wait until you read the section about the UK Low Flying System.

The second module of day two covered flight operations, responsibilities and airmanship. This was when we started to pull together much of what we learned yesterday, with a reminder of the safe operating distances, the roles of the pilot and the decisions that need to be made along with when and how to report an incident.

Navigation

The ability to identify where your take-off and landing area is on a map, as well as the ability to explain it to other people, is an essential skill for legal drone flight. Consequently, grid references and GPS systems were explained.

Did you know that there are 32 US satellites orbiting the earth for GPS purposes?

Flight Planning

Much of what we’d been doing for the previous day and a half was give us the tools needed to plan a flight properly. Tom took us through each stage, from getting the call from a client to conducting a pre-site survey, putting together an on-site survey, conducting the risk assessment and completing the flight brief.

Once we’d run through the process with Tom, we split into two groups to carry-out the planning process for another scenario. This time we were left to our own devices with a list of useful website and apps. It didn’t take long to realise that no one app or website provides all the information you need, and we looked at various digital maps and charts to get the data we needed to fill-out the provided checklist.

UK Low Flying System

In the final module of the two-day course the MD and Chief Pilot of Aerial Motion Pictures, Matt Williams, explained how the UK is divided into 20 low flying areas (LFAs). Three of these are designated Tactical Training Areas (TTAs) where full-sized fixed-wing aircraft can fly at just 100ft above ground.

These areas are of significance to drone pilots because small unmanned aircraft (SUA) can legally fly at up to 400ft. It’s imperative that the two aircraft don’t meet.

You might think that a small drone wouldn’t do much damage if it collided with a military aircraft, but far from it. Matt showed us photographs of a helicopter he piloted that had been hit by a seagull that weighs about the same a DJI Phantom 4. The bird took out a window, hitting Matt in the chest, breaking a few ribs and rendering him unconscious (luckily his co-pilot was able to take the controls. The bird also deformed the cockpit frame so much that a door flew off and narrowly missed the tail rotor. If that had been hit, the helicopter the whole crew would’ve been killed. A sobering thought.

The Exam

Day two culminated with the theory exam set by the CAA. It’s a multiple choice affair with 50 questions, a 60-minute time limit and a pass mark of 80%.

Some companies run this as an open-book exam, but Aerial Motion Pictures makes it closed-book. That piles on the pressure a bit, but it also means that you commit more of what you’ve been taught to memory, so it will be easier to recall at a later date when you need the information for real.

I’m happy to say that everyone on the course I was on passed – me included. Phew!

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How to get a PfCO: Day one of Ground School
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How to get a PfCO: Day one of Ground School
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Angela is currently going through the process of getting her PfCO, the permission required to fly a drone for commercial purposes. She reports back on day one of ground school
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Camera Jabber
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