My Journey To CAA PFCO, Permission To Fly Unmanned Aircraft

My Journey To CAA PFCO, Permission To Fly Unmanned Aircraft

May 14, 2017

Back in 2014 the Phantom P2 caught my eye and thought how great would it be to get images of Ullapool from across the water without having to drive all the way round to Altnaharrie which is a 60 mile round trip.   So I bought the P2 and went with the GoPro option as the stock camera was not very good.  Got the P2 took it out the box, read the very very basic instructions and took it for its first flight in a empty football pitch, little did i know at this time that would have been right on the boundary of the 150m rule set out by the CAA.   Back then there was very little information given with the drone, i actually do not recall seeing anything about CAA. 

First flight went well the camera video quality was pretty good but the stills were terrible in my opinion the GoPro could not deal with light it was blowing the highlights and there was no adjustments possible without putting a physical filter on the lens.  Having said that when i first took it up i was amazed this is exactly what i wanted a different perspective in photography.    As you can see from the image i was using FPV goggles something again i was not aware at the time was not allowed as maintaining VLOS is required, however i did always have a spotter with me normally the wife.  

The day it all changed.....

After a few flights all was going well with the P2 then there was the day..... that day all was well then when i took off the P2 just started accelerating up and up and up, not responding to controls, the P2 started to drift in the wind out towards the sea, I turned off the remote still not responding (RTH failed) and it was at that point i decided to turn on the remote and start trying to kill the motors, on about the 10th attempt I seen the P2 drop from the sky.  I managed to retrieve the P2 however it changed my opinion and my confidence with the idea of flying drones for a long time.   What had gone wrong, what had i done wrong, I went through and there was nothing different, for whatever reasons the P2 decided to flyaway.  There is the word FLYAWAY, after Googling the internet for Phantom flyaway i was shocked at the amount of  videos, blogs all relating to issues with drones flying away, not so uncommon.  I was looking for possible reasons of it, interference?  what could interfere with the P2 no electrical cables, no radio masts in close proximity, I gave up trying to figure why. 

Now it took me a good while to build back up my confidence, always in the back of my mind is this thing going to flyaway, i have never flew in the same location since, just in case. I end up putting the P2 on the shelf and let it collect dust while the inspire had caught my eye. 

Roll on a couple of years ....  (WARNING FEET IMAGE)

I had busted one of my ankles really badly during a night shoot of Aurora at Rhue lighthouse (IMG_8723). What happens when your standing on a rock in the same position too long and then when your foot slips there is no strength there and like a bolt of lighting up my leg it hurt.    I damaged / torn ligaments in my ankle and foot and even after a year of going back and forth to a physio i was still really hurting on uneven ground.  I ended up falling again about a year or so after right outside my house... manage to walk up the hills and night and i go and fall outside my house LOL seriously. I never broke anything but was told it might had been better if i did, bones in my foot had moved about, bloody soar and swollen.   Two busted ankles not so good for a photographer and not being able to get up the hills easily was getting me down so i started looking at other options. 

Inspire 1 

The inspire 1 looked like a really good aircraft but when i was looking it was already a year old and with this technology moving so quick i was unsure if i should hold off and see if an Inspire 2 was due.  After speaking to Heliguy i was told that DJI were going to be launching a new product in a few months which was rumoured to be the Inspire 2.  So i decided to hold fire but to start looking for drone training companies where i could do my training and flight test with.   What i did not like about the Inspire 1 that made me question buying was the flight time, age of unit and no std FPV camera. 

The Training Course

I ended up buying the Inspire 2 + course together and they had a company that had a location close to Glasgow.  So i got the training handbook in December and for the next couple of months i was constantly reading more and more of the handbook, 136 pages covering everything from laws to weather, there is a lot more information than i first expected but it was enjoyable as always good to learn new things.  

Time for the training course, what do i remember form the course coffee, coffee and more coffee.   Darren the instructor was very good and extremely knowledgeable and made the course upbeat and interesting was not like listening to a lecturer droning on, excuse the pun.  Two days were ram packed with information, information overload but it was pretty much just going over everything in the handbook.  So theory test passed, time to start writing the Ops Manual.  

The Operations Manual 

This was daunting for me, It has been a while since i was at university and i have not had to write this type of document since leaving, lots of coffee and 65 pages later i submitted my operations manual to the training centre who checked and passed it off.   I make it sound easier than it was, i found it very time consuming and a lot of my evenings were spent going back over and over again, there was a lot of information and a lot of tweaking and there will always be tweaking as experience grows.   

Flying Practise and dealing with DJI

So you need to try and get at least 2 hours flight time in the 3 months on the run up to the flight test, does not sound like much but the weather was not very kind so every chance i got i went out.  

So i hit a problem, not literally speaking i went out a few times as i only had one set of batteries (inspire 2 needs 2 to fly) and all was good but soon realised i need to buy more batteries.  Ordered another two sets (ouch that hurt the wallet) and this is where i hit the problem for some reason when i landed and changed batteries there would be a break in the video link from the main camera, the FPV worked.  

I tried updating the firmware on aircraft, tablet, and changing batteries etc, no joy so i contact DJI support and oh its pulling blood from a stone getting information from DJI.  Dealing with DJI reminded me so much of calling BT and getting a very basic scripted response, i went online to speak to them so i could have at least a log of communications.  

I carried out a lot of fault finding myself as i did not want to have to send the aircraft back and after supplying the information to DJI i they arranged a courier to collect the aircraft to be delivered to Holland.  

I ended up having to get the Inspire 2 sent to Holland for inspection and it turned out the data encoder on the aircraft was faulty so they replaced, i should point out it took 5 days to get there..... 5 days and 3 to come back with about 4 days testing in-between.   All of this time the weather was ideal for practise flying.... :-(.  


As i was waiting for the Inspire 2 to come back i decided to exchange the camera the X4s to the X5s i was penny pinching when i bought the X4S the X5s is far superior and gives you the ability to change lenses. 

 

Flight Test 

As i was travelling down from Ullapool i did checked and double checked my departure checklist, not like i can just pop home and pick something up I've forgotten.  As you can see from the picture there is a fair amount of gear in the back of the camper van just for operating the drone :-).  Drone travel case, Portable Table for setting up the Inspire, Paperwork including site assessment, site survey, risk assessments, Cordon (cones, tape), Safety Equipment (fire extinguisher, fire blanket, first aid kit, knife, torch) , Accessories and so on oh and a trolley to fit it all in as could not fit mule in the camper.  Anyone want to to hire any cones I've got plenty :-)    

The day of the flight test i was nervous, not going to kid anyone here,  the test is slow and controlled manoeuvres similar to your driving test.  I setup on site just as i had planned on my site assessment and site survey. As you can see my gear setup on the left the other guys were setting up to my right and left.  Sunlight was going to be a problem for all of us as it was later on in the evening and the sun was low and it proved an issue with all of us doing our tests.  Cones were placed around the operating area and we had to carry out specific manoeuvres and a few were putting the aircraft directly in front of the sun which made it difficult to see and then put the aircraft in Atti mode to show you can handle the aircraft safely in case of loss of GPS.  

The three of us that were doing the test all passed , we all had things we need to improve on and in my case was not to be so on and off with the controls and smooth it as i was a bit robotic which i put down to nerves.    

Passed time to fill out my SRG1320 and wait and wait and wait.  

Was advised it could take 30 working days to get PFCO or get notified your application was rejected etc.

25 days later I've got my PFCO and ready to do commercial work. 

 



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