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Home > Ask Steve > How Do I Deal With Flying the Drone Near Uncontrolled Airports? – Ask Steve
How Do I Deal With Flying the Drone Near Uncontrolled Airports? – Ask Steve

How Do I Deal With Flying the Drone Near Uncontrolled Airports? – Ask Steve

Question:

Dear Steve,

I am a Part 107 licensed UAS pilot and, like you, have difficulty understanding exactly what is expected of me as a pilot regarding radio communications. I operate mostly in orthomosaic / photogrammetry mapping flights.

Some of them are in rural areas near grass strips and uncontrolled airports. I listen on CTAF freqs and have been in the flightpath of manned aircraft a few times. I always move out of their way as required, but I have been “surprised” when a call comes, and I find that I am in their path without much warning.

I have been able to drop the drone out of their path without much concern thus far, but I live in dread of the time I am unable to evade safely.

I am flat out unsure of how to call an emergency to the manned aircraft pilot. I know to “key the mike / PTT” button and say “PULL UP & ABORT APPROACH! UAV Drone in your glide slope at xx feet AGL & dropping.”

That’s my “plan” for now because I haven’t found a more defined protocol.

Any guidance on where to look for a better solution?

Answer:

Thank you for sending in your question.

This is an issue that is growing. I’ve received more questions about this subject lately.

I can see this issue as a manned and unmanned pilot.

If a conflict like this ever happened, the unmanned pilot would be at fault. Why?

§ 107.37 Operation near aircraft; right-of-way rules.

(a) Each small unmanned aircraft must yield the right of way to all aircraft, airborne vehicles, and launch and reentry vehicles. Yielding the right of way means that the small unmanned aircraft must give way to the aircraft or vehicle and may not pass over, under, or ahead of it unless well clear.

(b) No person may operate a small unmanned aircraft so close to another aircraft to create a collision hazard.

And then there is:

14 CFR § 91.13 – Careless or reckless operation.

(a) Aircraft operations for the purpose of air navigation. No person may operate an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.

(b) Aircraft operations other than for the purpose of air navigation. No person may operate an aircraft, other than for the purpose of air navigation, on any part of the surface of an airport used by aircraft for air commerce (including areas used by those aircraft for receiving or discharging persons or cargo), in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.

The Issue is Complicated

The issue is not to avoid the aircraft or give a warning; it begins with you are required to not operate in any manner that would create any potential conflict, to begin with.

Making announcements on the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF) every few minutes is helpful, but it does not give you a right-of-way.

As a manned pilot, if someone jumped on CTAF and made the announcement you suggest, there is little confidence the pilot would understand what is happening, would know the call was for him/her, or take action.

I’m not sure I would be able to process a call like that, and here is why. As manned aircraft pilots, we are trained that the most critical flight phase is a stabilized approach when landing.

Everything that happens with arriving at the airport, flying the pattern, and turning final is designed to get us configured for landing and not to take any sudden action on short final.

If someone jumped on the radio and I could not see the drone to understand what was happening, there is a pretty good chance my hammered in training would not result in me taking evasive action.

A command to pull up stands a much higher chance of getting me killed since my landing speed is not that far from stall speed. A sudden climb could make the aircraft stall and roll to the left into the ground and burn, killing all aboard.

It is a situation that is a lot like knowing I’m going to intentionally collide with a bird on short final than overreacting and stalling into the ground.

I’ve had plenty of times that I have dodged left or right to avoid a bird between 1,000-500 AGL, but there is no way I’m making any sudden flight movements on short final.

Commanding a “go-around” is not a rapid solution either. The manned aircraft pilot would have to hear your suggestion, process it, accept it, take action, and then hopefully execute it correctly. If they do it incorrectly, it can result in a stall crash as well. And a go-around will not stop the airplane descent instantly.

You Can’t Count on All Airplanes or Helicopters to Have a Sharp PIC Onboard

I’d love to tell you that manned aircraft pilots are all at the top of their game. They are not. The level of pilot you get at uncontrolled strips is all over the board. I’ve run into some people that sure seem like they should not be flying in a fixed-wing plane. My unscientific experience informs me that the odds of finding a less experienced pilot at the kind of airport or strip you mention is pretty high. I know pilots that will absolutely not fly in controlled airspace because it intimidates them. So what can happen is they become complacent at less busy uncontrolled airports.

Even in controlled airspace, I’ve heard all sorts of things from pilots. My favorite was the pilot that said he was climbing on a clear day, but ATC said, “You are descending, pull up.”

My last near-miss with another airplane in flight was in controlled airspace because they did not have a transponder and it was mostly invisible except one or two sweeps of a primary radar with no altitude information.

We came within a couple of hundred feet of impacting. Ironically I was flying a local controller, and he got to the bottom of it with his friend on duty when we landed. “Bob, you damn near got me killed.”

You also have the issue that not every small plane coming into and out of a grass strip or uncontrolled airport might not even have a radio. They might not even have broadcast any ADS-B that your flight controller or app might warn you about.

There are manned aircraft pilots out there that don’t want anyone to track them, so they intentionally fly in airspace that does not require ADS-B and there are UAS pilots that have been pushing back about Remote ID. So this void and the resulting potential conflict between manned and unmanned aircraft exists.

The FAA publishes a great educational chapter on airport pattern operations. You can download that here.

Keep in mind, that not all aircraft fly the pattern. A straight-in approach to final can occur as well. Especially if a pilot is flying a practice instrument approach.

The most dangerous place to be at your 400 foot AGL or less will be within one to two miles from the end of the runway. I would expect landing traffic to be in the 500+/- AGL, so there is a collision risk. A staggering 50% of mid-air collisions occur in this phase of flight between manned aircraft.

The Unicom or CTAF frequency can be located on the FAA digital map or sectional you should have. A handheld radio will only reach a couple of miles so the pilot will not hear you till the last minute.

There is no need to broadcast on the radio unless you hear an airplane operating in the immediate area. Nobody will hear it. The exception to that would be an airplane on the ground at the other end of the runway that is preparing to depart towards you. It might be hard for you to hear.

You will want to listen to any airplane traffic announcing they will be arriving or departing over you.

Your blind announce radio traffic should be:

“[Airport Name] traffic. You have a drone operating at 300 feet above ground level three-quarters of a mile, north of the end of Runway X. [Airport Name] traffic.”

But to be extra safe, you might want to broadcast that every five minutes, even if you don’t hear any traffic, while you are in the air.

If you do hear airplane traffic inbound on Runway X, then listen for the airplane to announce by saying something like [Airport Name] traffic, Cherokee XXX entering the traffic pattern [turning downwind, turning base, or turning final] [Airport Name] traffic.”

I would then encourage you to contact the pilot and say something like “[Airport Name] traffic Cherokee XXX. I am a drone pilot flying 300 feet above ground level at three-quarters of a mile off the northern end of runway X. I am landing now.”

You might also want to give them a landmark like just north of Walmart or something else known and easy to find.

If you don’t make a radio connection with the pilot before they turn base, I suggest you land immediately wherever the drone is. Do not try to return home. Put the drone as straight down as you can.

From the manned aircraft, we can’t see a drone. This interview I filmed with a news helicopter pilot explains why very nicely. Keep in mind the video below is focused on communications with helicopters at incident scenes and not landing aircraft at small airports. The same ground clutter issues apply.

Potential Solution

I like to try and find a solution instead of just saying no all the time.

Here is one easy solution, but it has a big caveat. You could restrict your maximum altitude to no more than 200 feet AGL in a conflict area. You’d have to shoot more photos to map the same area.

The downside to this is if the manned pilot does spot your drone and gets target focused on it out of a concern over safety or conflict, and they wind up having a resulting accident, you can get sucked into that.

No matter what, you would be the guilty party.

The FAA investigation and/or civil suit against you would focus on your Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM) as well. Risk management and ADM would lead a pilot not to make a potential conflict flight to begin with.

You have a lot of strikes against you in this scenario. The best bet is to do what I have to do at times, refuse the flight.

That is easier to say than do. It takes experience or fear to reject a flight, but it is always the smartest move when it does not feel right or is a reasonable risk.

Here is a little tip that might help you as much as it does me at times.

If you ever have a flight that feels off, call a pilot friend and let them be your safety pilot. There have been times that I’ve listened to someone describe the situation they are facing, and at the end, you need to say, “You know what the answer is, don’t you?”

The process of saying it out loud and explaining it to another pilot really helps to clarify the situation in your own head.

Thank you for reaching out to me and asking your question.

Steve

About Steve Rhode

The Public Safety Flight website is dedicated to news, honest information, tips, and stories about the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), UAVs, aircraft, and drones in the fire service and other public safety niches.The site was founded by Steve Rhode, an FAA-certificated airplane commercial and instrument certificated pilot and a very experienced Part 107 UAS commercial pilot. Steve is the Chief Pilot with the Wake Forest Fire Department and the North Carolina Public Safety Drone Academy. He also provides expert advice to drone pilots through Homeland Security Information Network and he is an FAA Safety Team drone expert. Steve loves to work closely with public safety pilots to answer questions and share information, real-world truth, and drone operation advice. You can contact Steve here, learn more about Steve here, or join his public safety pilot private email list here.