Let’s Talk Drones – Intro and Hello – The Accidental Aviator

This is the first episode in a new series – The Accidental Aviator. This podcast is for the UAS, UAV, Part 107, COA, and drone pilots of all experience and skill levels to become exceptional FAA certificated aviators. This podcast is straight and honest talk from experienced FAA manned and drone pilots to help teach, educate, and discuss aviation-related topics that apply to drone operations.


Steve Rhode: You’re listening to the very first podcast of the accidental aviator.

My name is Steve Rhode. I happen to be a pilot, a manned pilot, and a drone pilot. And with me is my cohost Robert Zarracina who happens to also be a drone pilot and a manned aircraft pilot. We thought we would do this podcast to share information with everybody in the drone community and help share a perspective on aviation in general.

Robert, would you agree with that mission statement?

Robert Zarracina: good to be here.

Steve Rhode: You know, one of the things that I have personally found is that there is a.

An approach difference in the way a manned pilots were introduced to aviation and the way that drone pilots were and even the FAA acknowledges that that difference exists in observing that manned pilots went through.

A longer training period. There were fewer of us. It took longer to get trained and build experience. And along with that came a whole bunch of other things I’m going to talk about, but in the drone world, the pace of technology and interest in the drone field has accelerated so rapidly that.

overnight people became certificated, FAA, commercial pilots for drones, without any historical experience.

And I’m afraid that it’s a set people up for failure. What have you observed?

Robert Zarracina: Same thing, Steve. Cause we’ve talked about this before that us manned aircraft pilots have gone through

years of study training, practice, check rides inspections et cetera, Which to me kind of puts us in a different realm of the let’s say, call it today.

Accidental aviators, which are the certificated drone pilots. They just don’t have the breadth and time and intensity of experience and education that we do

Steve Rhode: So on one hand, you have people who went out and got a drone, passed a 60 question test. It might’ve felt hard, but it was pretty gentle compared to what man pilots have had to deal with all these years.

The FAA in a symposium actually said that regardless of today’s relative simplicity of Part 107 qualifications, the capabilities of drone pilots should be comparable to what is expected of manned aircraft pilots, and under the heading of accidental aviator. I find that a lot of people have.

Been served a big disadvantage getting in as drone, only pilots, because what they missed was having a relationship with a certificated flight instructor. They didn’t have any local airport or flight school that they hung out with and absorbed information and knowledge from friends and instructors.

They didn’t have any past aviation experience. Understanding that the rules are complex and you will be judged by what the rules and regulations say. And they didn’t even have a check ride to show that they knew how to handle the drone as they were expected to be able to. And so it’s, it’s not that I think the turning point.

If you are a drone pilot, and you have not awoken to the fact that being a pilot in general carries a lot of responsibilities and a different mindset. Then in the future, maybe even the near future, you’re going to be set up to fail. And I don’t want to see anyone either face FAA. Fine. Civil actions or criminal actions, what can we do to better help people?


Robert Zarracina: Oh boy, Steve, that

that’s a tall question because as I was listening to you speak, I was reminiscing to all the times that I did flight planning, check weather planned across country flight. I remember as if it were yesterday, when. My flight instructor, we taxied into the FBO and it was ready to shut off the engine.

She says, no, don’t do that. She climbed out. And I said, where are you going? She said,

it’s time, Yeah. Time to solo, which means I had to make a decision whether I was going to live or die

And fortunately, I’m still here. in, you know, the solo flight went well. So To try and answer your question about how can we, help the accidental aviators.

I think it’s trying to share what manned pilots have learned over years in terms of preparation, both in terms of the aircraft, which I believe that the accidental aviators don’t do, because it’s really simple. You just look at the drone, you put the props on, you fire it up, You know, do you have control. You’re ready to go.

In manned aviation, we don’t have that luxury because we have a pre-flight check that we need to do in the aircraft. We need to make sure that all the let’s see additional documentation like service bulletins, or airworthiness directives, or if you’ve made any modifications to the aircraft, you have to have supplemental type certificates that all has to be.

good Along with understanding FAA regs in total. And the reason for that is, you know, that as pilot in command, we are 100% ultimately

responsible for the success or lack there of of the flight. And what that means is that if something happens to the aircraft, because we didn’t check, let’s say whether a certain mod was done right.

Or Whatever, we’re still, we’re still liable. We’re still responsible. And that’s the one area that I see that the accidental aviators, I don’t think truly understand the potential magnitude of what could potentially happen. Because as you know, here in Minneapolis, there was a gentleman who went off and flew a drone And to make a long story short, the FAA

Found out that he posted the video online, cited him for five violations at $11,000 a piece for a total bill of $55,000, not counting attorney’s fees.

Steve Rhode: Well, and there are people being cited. If not every day, at least several times a week. And recently I interviewed the FAA enforcement


Steve Rhode: a couple of them great people who said that, you know, the number w I loved when I asked what their advice was on helping people to avoid getting into trouble. And the advice was so simple and so difficult at the same time, which was. Read the rules and understand them. The FAA drone advisory subcommittee said that that when they assume, they assume that when aviators climb in the cockpit and carry passengers around the world, they’re going to understand what the rules are and they’re going to be willing and going to be able to comply with them.

And they said that is the same thing that we expect from anybody flying a drone. There are certain conditions that you can cause. While operating that drone, that can be an incredibly risky and the past FAA administrator noticed the difference in the culture between the historical manned pilot and the current unmanned pilot.

He said, now we’re ushering in a new age of aviation here in America, the unmanned aircraft era, and it’s moving at a quicker pace than anything that we have seen before. It’s fair to say that it is sometimes called the traditional aviation industry. Has its own culture and the unmanned aircraft community has a different culture.

And the traditional aviation culture is very cautious while the new unmanned aviation culture seems to be moving with incredible pace. And you know, those that mess up and make mistakes, impact the safety record for all drone pilots and impact the future of this field. And so that’s I, that’s why I like to help educate people on what the rules are and even the FAA has put out and see January, February, it was February, 2021.

The guidance for Part 107 pilots. Now Part 107 pilots are those pilots that are. Certificated. And the FAA does not license people certificated by the FAA to operate a drone in commercial operations. So when people pass their 60 question test and they went out to start to fly, you know, I, I don’t think many of them have gone back to look and see what the FAA guidance is.

This advisory circular put out by the FAA as information and guidance for Part 107 pilots, I believe it is 105 pages long of information and what the expectations are as pilots. And so Robert with this podcast series, what I hope is that we can work our way through a lot of this information that might be misunderstood.

People have just heard things from others and believed them to be factual.

Robert Zarracina: Yeah. With the, with the volume of the accidental aviators out there. There’s far more of them than there is the traditional let’s say manned aircraft pilots. So with social media platforms just the volume of men, misinformation, just one person could state Something that is incorrect and it gets repeated millions of times. And so therefore, if it’s repeated often enough, it tends to be believed as true. as you know, when it’s really not.

Steve Rhode: one of the things that drives me crazy has to be flying at night and the assumptions that people have as you said, they heard something from someone and they believed it to be a fact.

Now you and I have. Trained and instructed people on how to fly drones, but, you know, neither of us are certificated flight instructors by the FAA because they don’t exist for drones. So when we were being taught how to fly an airplane I’m an instrument commercial rated pilot. And so are you with thousands of hours?

When we were learning how to fly. We were taught by an instructor who had to pass exams and practical exams, and be essentially approved certificated by the FAA that they proved, that they were qualified to be an instructor. Today’s drone instructor is just anybody off the street. And I have heard

people believe we’re being held up as, you know, highly qualified instructors, or even there are some groups out there I’m not going to name any names who spread a lot of information that is just factually incorrect. And it drives me crazy because when you talk to somebody about it, you know, when they say, well, I fly my drone three miles at night to stay within the regulations.

And when you say, well, you know, actually you can’t do that. They look at you. Like, you don’t know what you’re talking about because all the YouTube videos and all the other stuff that they heard and the stuff they saw on Facebook said, you can. So at the very least Robert I’d like, you know, some words of wisdom that we can impart into the accidental aviator to encourage them to go out and research these things themselves.

What, what is your best advice?

Robert Zarracina: Oh boy. I would say the best I can do is share with them. Let’s say flight instruction, Cause Steve, a while back, I had a potential objective of becoming a CFI a certified flight instructor. And in order to do that, and to support your content’s. you have to pass two writtens. There’s the FOI fundamental of instruction.

And then there’s the CFI certified flight instructor. written. So you have to pass two tests And these are not 63 questions. I mean, they’re extensive. They cover everything. And then after that, you have to basically go through 40 hours of instruction

you know, a flight instructor. And then after that you have to pass another check ride with an FAA examiner who says, yep, you’re ready to be flight instructor.

no, you’re not. So you can imagine from a flight instruction standpoint, there is far more education and knowledge that you need to know in order to do that. Now I want to kind of separate the, because there are definitely unmanned aircraft pilots out there who can fly the doors off of me. I get that.

But the whole point here is to say, we’re impressed That you’re a great pilot when you can fly these ships out there. But the real key is how do you, as a self-proclaimed instructor impart that knowledge beyond just flying by talking about how do you plan for weather

how do you determine what the limits are? the ship.

are How do you make sure that if you encounter weather conditions that are beyond the capability of the ship, you abort the mission. How do you plan for flights in class airspace? How do you talk with air traffic control or tower, depending on where you’re flying which are a lot of things that, you know, I have talked with numerous certificated, unmanned, pilots Who asked me, well, how do I do these sorts of things?

And it’s like, well, wait a minute. you pass the test you don’t know how to do that.

Steve Rhode: Yeah. And the expectation is that you know how to do it. And if you don’t that you’re going to go out and educate yourself because when something hits the fan and the FAA comes calling The expectation is that you are operating within the rules.

And let’s talk about the FAA coming to call because people think that you know, unless I have an accident or something really bad happens that there’s no risk of me being investigated by the FAA. And that is completely untrue. So he I’m in North Carolina and our flight standards district office takes care of.

Maybe a little over half of the state and we receive three or four on average, drone pilot complaints a week. And many of those complaints come from. YouTube videos or Facebook videos that pilots themselves have posted. I mean, there was one pilot, the posted flying at night without strobe lights on over a town and extended range.

And, you know, the FAA doesn’t need any, anything more than that. You’re violation of so many things.

Robert Zarracina: Oh yeah. And I think with the enormity of the accidental. aviators, One, one potential explanation is catch me if you can, because there’s so many pilots out there flying and there’s

little FAA resources for enforcement.

It’s like, you know, it’s kind of like playing poker, the odds of me getting caught or slim to none. Right. The scary part is. And, you know when I was flying manned aircraft, Steve, I got ramp checked twice. And what that means is that unannounced. I’m at this airport, you know, two people come up and say, hi, I’m from the FAA.

And the first thing I think.

well, I can’t say it on the air here, but it’s like, oh God, you know, what have I done now? Because the. Approach I take is that I think they’re there to try and find something wrong that may not be their intent, but I have to, I have to you know, plan for the worst hope for the best. Right? So then, you know, they start asking me questions and the good news is, is that on both ramp checks, I was able to satisfy their, questions And they didn’t ground the airplane. They said, Hey, that, you know, appreciate your time. And they left. And you know, we went on our Merry way. There have been situations that I’ve heard of with friends or didn’t end that way, where they found something that was not quite.

And they pretty much said you cannot fly this aircraft until this has been corrected.

And so you, if you can imagine in my case here I am. flying Company officers around, we’re at a distant airport where, you know, the last you know, call of the day, we’re ready to get home. And all of a sudden, I got to say, you guys got Drive home, or you got to take a bus or a train, and I’m going to have to stay here until I get this remedied, which could be weeks because you know, like it or not, the FAA doesn’t move at the speed of.

light, you know?

Steve Rhode: Well, and even if you didn’t have the information with you satisfy the ramp check the FAA enforcement folks have the power of subpoena to request those records from you. I have friends at the FAA and I have told them what I’m about to tell you many times and they don’t necessarily disagree with me that the folks that the FAA are kind they’re friendly, but from a pilot point of view, you will be guilty before you are innocent. Right? I, that is probably the biggest thing that I can impart is that you will be guilty if something comes up and there’s an investigation and you have not done things by the book.

There are two codes under the code of of federal regulations 91.3 and 91.13, that you will be guilty of. 91.3. The pilot in command is the sole authority in the operation of the aircraft. If you did something stupid, the pilot in command, which is you is responsible. And of course, 91.13, which is if you operated the drone in a careless or reckless manner, Guilty of that, a code too.

So right off the bat you can expect some unpleasant outcomes. Now, Robert, one of the things I’d like to talk about real quickly is recently I talked to you about what the FAA expect expectation. Of a preflight is before you fly, then this is the last topic I’d like to cover in our inaugural broadcast here, because I think this will blow people’s minds.

So what I observe is the average person goes out, they put the drone on the ground, they turn the power on, they look the screen and they take off, but the FAA expectation. Of an actual pre-flight inspection. I asked you how long would this pre-flight inspection take you? And I think what we finally agreed is that you felt it would take at least 30 minutes.

Robert Zarracina: Yeah. Cause I figured like from a manned aircraft perspective, 35 to, 30 to 45 minutes, because I need to make sure that that aircraft is number. one Safe and that there’s nothing going wrong with it, such that it’s kind of like we’ve talked about before Steve I’d rather be on the ground. Wishing I was in the air than be in the air, wishing I was on the ground.

So, Yeah. I mean, there’s a lot, we check and I think, you know, I, I kind of have what I call an extended preflight, which means that prior to looking over the aircraft, I’m checking weather because as you know, flying is all about weather. And if there’s a chance where the weather could go south on me, I don’t even think about pre flying the aircraft.

I canceled the flight because there’s been times when I’ve been in thunderstorms, I’ve been in icing conditions. And fortunately, we were able to extricate ourselves from bowls because neither one of those you want to mess with this is a kind of mindset. I think manned aircraft pilots have that. I think the accidental, any accidental aviators don’t because The AAS are always on the ground. You know, chances are, if they fly the drone away, the worst that can happen is they lose sight of it, which.

You know, pilots do. And it ends up in a lake here or somebody’s backyard or a farm field or something, And that’s it. With Amanda aircraft, there is a far higher probability that lives can be jeopardized.

And I think just that mindset. is one of the things again, and I’m not trying to beat up the AAS at all. Steve, I think. because it’s a drone, it’s a drone. Some of them look at it as a toy. FAA does not.

Steve Rhode: Well, they, you know, the are accidental aviator friends just have not had. The training or experience to know what is appropriate.

You know, I think that the people who listened to this podcast and take this information seriously, will end up as superior drone pilots, and they will then go on to spread the word and look at other pilots and go. Tell me about your pre-flight

So I’m you know, fire department pilot. And when I fly the airplane for the fire department, my flight begins the previous day, because if I know I’m going to fly tomorrow, well today I’m all right. Reading the forecast discussion for tomorrow. I’m looking at what the hourly forecast is. I’m looking at you know, what temperature visibility is going to be any participate, participant precipitation.


Robert Zarracina: Yeah, this is a tough one.

Steve Rhode: well, I planned to participate in. But not if it’s precipitating.

I’m also looking at, you know, w what are my chances for morning fog, especially this time of year. Am I going to have enough visibility conduct the flight safely? Am I going to be in violation of the rules? I also need to look at, are there any airspace changes in the areas that I would normally fly?

Temporary flight restrictions or any new updates to airports or because especially in the fall, there are lots of areas there that are off limits from football games and TFR is around, you know, those areas and others. And that’s just thinking about the weather. Now, the FAA expects us to go on and do.

Crew briefings ensure all the documentation is available. Verify the manufacturer required components are okay. Review the pilot, operating instructions verify the control station. And that’s just page one of three. So Robert, somebody, an accidental aviator out there right now is gonna hear what we just said and they’re going to go well, that is ridiculous and, you know, It might be ridiculous, but it is what you will be judged on and it’s going to be what the FAA is going to look for.

Robert Zarracina: Yeah, I agree because as we do and again, in the man world, I mean, when you and I are inspecting aircraft, I’m always thinking what could go wrong. And if it does, do I have an out And I apply to that, you know, to flying drones, like you said, the night before, you know, we actually have two ships, we have a primary and a backup.

because in case, something happens to the primary, at least we got a backup to get the job done. And as you know, with some of the you know, the aircraft out there, some of the plastic parts in there have fatigued and they started exhibiting cracks, which means. that I didn’t want to take the risk of flying that.

So we went to the backup and then we obviously had to replace the shell and some other components on the drone to make sure it was what I considered airworthy. Now there’s a lot of, I’ve seen people out there who have flown them where the motor mounts are. Yeah. Are cracked and they still fly it.

But the problem I have with that is if one of those arms cracks, severely

the. motor Or you get a prop strike that things coming out of the air, Steve right now.

Steve Rhode: Yeah. And if that happened, if you took off with any evidence of any crack and had you know, any awareness that it was not in top condition, the problem is you’re going to be guilty of 91.3 and 91.13.

And also I think it’s 107.15 you have a requirement to make sure that drone is in a condition for safe operation before you take off. So there’s, you know, there’s three things right there.

Robert Zarracina: Yeah. And I mean, and I mean, maybe I’m,

hypersensitive, but even when I put the props on.

you know, my ship, I check them probably at least two to three times to make sure they’re tight.

Cause I don’t want. them Coming off in air. The other thing we check is obviously the batteries, because if they start swelling, as you know, lipos, they get kind of upset when they get to a certain point and then they catch on fire and they make her own oxygen. So basically self feed the fire. You can’t really put it out unless you bury it in sand we also make sure we, cause here we have extreme temperatures. So Because we can have a hundred degree days we can have below zero days. All of a sudden, you know, batteries, maintenance and display maintenance takes on a whole new meaning because we’ve had situations where we flown in cold weather and display is

disappeared and fortunately, we were able to maintain control of the aircraft, bring it back without incident, but can you imagine if your display disappears And you’re flying at night and your ship is three miles away how do you get at home. I’d like to know that, you know, it’s impossible. And We’ve had situations where we’ve had to warm up the batteries, warm up the displays and cold weather.

We’ve had to bring coolers along where we would put ice in them. And we’d put a plywood board on top of the ice and stick the batteries on top of the plywood and warm weather to cool. them off. Because as you know, when they’re hot to try and recharge them, I mean, again, the liability is those things could catch on fire You know, because they’re home and they have, I mean, we’ve had one of the radio control field that I fly out where we do a lot of fixed-wing work out there.

We had, you know, a pilot out there who had a battery that was going south. He stuck it in a charger 15 minutes later. Guess what happened and exploded.


Steve Rhode: And one of the things that I’ve seen are pilots who haven’t paid attention to their batteries before sticking them in the drone. And they have been a little bit swollen.

Right. They’re becoming defective. And it doesn’t latch in all the way. So they’re, they’re flying and the battery falls out.

Robert Zarracina: Seen that on fixed wings too. And the other thing. I think From a manned aircraft perspective. And again, I’m not trying to glorify manned aircraft I’m just trying to share what the accidental aviators is out there. procedures we’re used to is that we document that.

because we document it in the engine logbook, we documented in the airframe logbook and we documented in our pilot logbook because we keep track of everything and I apply that same.

And I know you do too. Documentation regimen To the UAV such that I know how many times the batteries have been charged. And then I have a better idea how the depletion of that battery occurs with the number of charges. Cause you know, a lipos over time, start to lose their effectiveness and the other thing that we did and we ran that VLOS test visual line of sight When we learned too, is that, you know, defective batteries, what we found, especially here in cold weather, once they get to the 20% threshold.

seemed to just fall right off a cliff It’s not a linear from 20 to zero is like 20. And it goes immediately to zero because we lost control of one of our ships, as you know, and fortunately, we were able to at least get it back to the ground and a plowed field and no sustained minimal damage. But I can’t imagine what would happen if we had.

that Over a person and, you know, bonked them on the head and

Steve Rhode: pop them on the head. Yeah. Well, the brow, the problem Robert, is that, you know, a drone, isn’t going to just bop somebody on the head. In fact, it can be fatal depending on what size drone you’re flying.

Robert Zarracina: Yeah. Because when we ran the kinetic energy tests, like you know, the FAA is looking for like the class two class three, none of the existing ships today, you know, pass that test.


Steve Rhode: Can you imagine a new drone pilot losing a drone, having to fall and kill somebody and then try to rely on the excuse. Oops. I’m sorry.

Robert Zarracina: Oh man. I don’t think there’s an attorney in the world that would let that one.

Steve Rhode: Oh my God. You would lose

Robert Zarracina: Yeah. And, And the thing is, you know, I see these, you know,

accidental aviators, flying over people constantly.

I mean, there was one A while back, because you know, back here during the winter, all our lakes freeze their big surprise, right? And they have during January, they have what they call pond hockey

Yeah. And it’s basically a big weekend tournament that they have out at lake failing and it turns out lake fail on is located on the approach.

Departure end of Minneapolis St. Paul airport. My son likes to play on that. you know, just join some friends back here And there was one time out there. I watched two drone pilots flying over the crowd off in, in class B airspace, I couldn’t believe it. I just went, oh my God, I just, I, the liability.

I mean, if the FAA ever found out that those people would have been in jail, they’re done. I mean, class B airspace.

Steve Rhode: on that cheery note, let’s end our first podcast of the accidental aviator and tell people that we want them to be exceptional pilots. We’re here to try to give information. I don’t want to scare the crap out of you.

I want to make you the best drone pilot you can possibly be. And on our next podcast, we’re going to be talking about. Rules and regulations, things that you should know. So be sure to subscribe to the podcast right now. So you don’t miss any future ones. And if you need to reach us you can reach me through my rareaviation.com website, rareaviation.com.

And you can use the contact form, send in any question you. And Robert and I will tackle it on an upcoming podcast, but Robert, thank you so much for taking the time today. We’ve already gone over 30 minutes and I, I want people to keep listening on the future. We can’t give them everything today.

Robert Zarracina: Oh, I agree Steve and I, I hope they listen with the intent that we have and that’s really to help out. And if you have any questions or you’re not, you may think you’re getting the wrong information. Please reach out to us because that way we can make it a two-way conversation instead of just, you know, I was preaching.

one direction.

Steve Rhode: Yeah. We want to be mentors. We want to be people that you can trust to ask questions and we will give you the right answer because we will research the hell out of it.

Robert Zarracina: you mean even more so than we do

Steve Rhode: That’s right.

Robert Zarracina: That’s true. Because we just, we want. you, We want you all, you listeners

Steve Rhode: out there to

Robert Zarracina: the truth And, and we’ll tell you, and, and, and as Steve has alluded to, we check it out with the FAA to say, here’s what we’re hearing is that the case? And that way, you know, we share it with you.

Steve Rhode: All right. Well, wishing everybody blue skies and safe landings.

This is Steve Rhode from the accidental aviator here with Robert Zarracina. And we will see you next time.