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.
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.
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.