We’ve all been reading the almost continuous news about the increasing use of drones and the FAA’s struggles to merge them into the national airspace system. And a struggle it will be. I already feel the risk they pose to small aircraft is being grossly understated, and the only real protection we have against them is to keep away from them and them from us. The FAA’s definition of a “small” UAS is 55lbs (25 kg) which would do measurable damage to a 747-size target and completely destroy most general aviation aircraft. In fact, what most people don’t understand is that it only takes a very small mass moving at a decent velocity to cause significant…and perhaps even catastrophic..damage to a small aircraft, especially one the size of most LSA’s. The bird that punched a three inch elongated hole in our CTSW’s canopy was a chimney swift weighing no more than 1.06 OUNCES moving at approximately 30 mph, making for a 138 knot collision at the CTSW’s normal cruising speed. (That means that even 0.55 lb…or lighter…“model aircraft”…which includes drones sold at your local electronics stores might be a significant threat to your aircraft). Luckily, it did not hit the pilot (not me) or it might have resulted in something more than “just” ten weeks of downtime and ten thousand dollars in repair bills.
So what can we do as pilots to avoid them? Obviously, good visual scanning (lookout) is going to be more important then ever. And good lookout doesn’t just apply to only the in-flight phase. It also applies to preflight studying of sectionals for anywhere you’re going to go. There’s a new symbol being used for drones also called “unmanned aerial systems” and it looks like this:
Now, being “ex-Navy”, when I see the letters “UA”, my first thought is “Unauthorized Absense” something you have to hope your local drone is not taking. Yes, the silhouette is the same as that used for a sailplane (the FAA calls them “gliders”) and only the “UA” letters tell you it’s really not. A quadcopter silhouette would be more visually compelling and meaningful, even if the actual drone was a Predator carrying Hellfire missiles. So, whenever you see the “UA” designation attached to a symbol that looks like a glider, be sure it registers in your pilot brain that it’s really a UAS or unmanned aerial system, i.e. a drone.
Of course, sectionals are only going to show you regular planned activity; NOTAMS are the only other thing in your preflight bag that tell you where they might be close to or within the area you intend to fly. (One of the things I really like about using the automated Lockheed Flight Service briefing tool is that it breaks UAS activity out; try it; you’ll like it!)
Under the blanket “Certificate of Authorization” the FAA has issued for flying most drones, they are restricted to altitudes less than 400 feet AGL and must stay five nautical miles from any airport with an operating control tower, three nautical miles from an airport with a published instrument flight procedure but no tower, two nm from any airport without a published instrument flight procedure, and two nm from a heliport with a published instrument flight procedure. All the rest of the remaining airports are out of luck; the drone pilots can legally blast right over you. (Of course, no one is explaining how the average drone jockey is supposed to know what airports have “published instrument flight procedures”; but that’s a subject for another day.)
While we’re thinking about risks to LSA’s (and actually any flight in a general aviation aircraft), let’s talk about another risk that also can be counted on to only increase in the future. I’m talking about the risks posed by commercial space vehicles. Their launch sites are also depicted on a sectional or Terminal Area Chart (TAC), with a relatively new symbol. That symbol looks like a rocket:
In this case, the symbol is next to an airport, telling you that the airfield is designated as a Spaceport. This depiction is from the Houston TAC.
On the San Antonio sectional, you’ll also see this symbol just southwest of the city of WACO depicting the Space X test facility.
As you can see, there is nothing telling you what the symbol depicts (unlike other chart symbols whose titles give you a hint of what you might be dealing with); all it tells you is some kind of space launch activity happens there and you need to be alert to it.
NOTAMS hopefully will alert you to an activity taking place in these areas. I say “hopefully” because it is not clear, especially in the case of the Space X facility, that they are always issued for every activity. Indeed, for many ground tests, there may be no reason to alert pilots because the hazard to them is so small; however I would hope any flight tests or tests with explosive or toxic potential should be NOTAM’ed and accompanied by a Temporary Flight Restriction designed to shield aircraft of any size from any possible hazard. I have never seen a TFR associated with the Space X site but have observed them around Blue Origin’s facility out near Van Horn, TX. The FAA has not released plans about the use of TFR’s for the Ellington Spaceport which will not involve the use of vertically launched vehicles (like Space X’s or Blue Origin’s) but will instead involve horizontally launched reusable vehicles (vehicles that takeoff conventionally and are known as Suborbital Reusable Launch Vehicles. My opinion is if those vehicles require TFR’s, then there will also be multiple range safety issues that cannot be ignored to assure protection of the public.) In any case, as time goes on, pilots can expect to see more space related activity around these sites; and they need to stay tuned not only to understand the risks but also to understand the impacts to everyday operations.
If you are flying around one of those rocket activity areas, see something unusual that could have posed a hazard (like something that goes “BOOM!”), and you know you checked NOTAMS but saw no notice about the activity, contact AOPA via e-mail at email@example.com and let them know.