Several days a week over the past month, Alon Sicherman has found himself sitting upright in bed at 4:45AM in a motel near a town called Poughquag, in upstate New York, asking himself the same question: what the hell am I doing? He gets up, eats a granola bar, and heads to a nearby farm, where he spends two hours learning how to fly a hot air balloon.
Sicherman, a freelance photographer who lives in New York City, about two hours by car from Poughquag, does not want to fly balloons for a living, or even for fun. He, like many professional picture takers, wants to fly a drone commercially. That requires a pilot’s license, and as it turns out, the fastest, cheapest way to acquire one is to learn how to fly a giant balloon.
"It’s absurd," Sicherman said after I had joined him and his instructor, Bill Hughes, on a recent training flight. The industry is in a legal limbo while the FAA works out a permanent set of rules for how this class of aircraft can operate. Right now, if you want to charge for services related to flying a drone, you have to apply for what’s known as a 333 exemption. About 1,000 have been granted so far, and dozens more are being approved each day. In June, the FAA granted Sicherman a 333 exemption. His elation was cut short when he discovered a clause that requires that the drone operator hold a crewed pilot’s license, something that he, and probably quite a few other exemption holders like him, did not have.
The clause that Sicherman had stumbled upon has been a matter of much controversy since the agency began issuing exemptions. "It seems absurd to require a drone operator to have a pilot license," said Jonathan Rupprecht, a lawyer representing commercial drone users and companies, "but with a strict reading of the regulations, this is what is required since a pilot certificate is required to fly an aircraft." Until it implements full regulations for drones, which will include some form of drone-specific certification process, the FAA is bound to the current rules for flying certifications, which were only designed for crewed aircraft. Unfortunately that’s a bit like practicing on an 18-wheeler for your motorcycle license.
Sicherman wanted to get compliant "as quickly, cheaply, and efficiently as possible." But acquiring a pilot license is neither quick nor cheap. "Even doing a glider training, I couldn’t find anything end to end for under $10,000," he told me. The shortest programs lasted several months, time that he would have to take off work.
Sicherman didn’t have that much money, or that much time. One day while researching the different kinds of pilot licenses, he came across the ballooning certificate. He soon discovered that he could get a license in less than a month for under $5,000 if he went with a balloon instead of a plane, and legally they would be the same to the FAA. Hughes, a seasoned instructor who charters balloon flights around the Hudson Valley, agreed to show him the ropes for a few hundred bucks per lesson. So he packed his bags and headed out to Poughquag.
Does learning to fly a 70 ft tall, basically unsteerable mass of heated air encased in nylon make you in any way qualified to operate a small, electric multicopter drone? I contacted the FAA to find out. In response, they directed me to a passage included in the majority of exemptions, including Sicherman’s: drone pilots, it states, "must hold either an airline transport, commercial, private, recreational, or sport pilot certificate." While a ballooning license is probably not what they had in mind when they drafted the rules, according to this language a balloon license does indeed make you a certifiable drone operator.
Ballooning teaches the basics of airspace regulation
And as different as ballooning and droning seem, there are some areas of overlap. The morning I flew with Sicherman and Hughes was cool and misty. The predominant sensation of ballooning, along with weightlessness, is that of silence. We flew up to about 1,500 feet over the dark green landscape. After we had gained some altitude, I broke the silence to ask student and instructor about the similarities and differences between piloting a several-pound quadcopter and a hot air balloon, which weighs around 8,000 pounds.
"It’s a lot harder," said Sicherman, keeping an eye out for air traffic. "The technology they put in drones makes them so accessible." He has had to learn how read the weather, and he now knows the difference between class G airspace and class B airspace. He has memorized the lingo to talk to Air Traffic Controllers. These skills, he admitted, would definitely come in handy while operating a drone.
"He’s learning a lot more about airspace," said Hughes, a former Navy helicopter pilot with over 2,500 hours of ballooning under his belt. We were hundreds of feet above the ground, but Hughes was casually sitting on the edge of the basket. "He’s going to have a good foundation in regulations." Hughes instructed Sicherman to land in a baseball field. As we descended, a gust of wind pulled us backwards. We floated over a row of large houses. "Try again," Hughes said.
While he’s obviously not thrilled to be spending $5,000 learning to fly a balloon, Sicherman is quick to defend the FAA’s efforts to tighten the restrictions on drone use. "The technology has changed to the point where it does have to be regulated," he explained. He now had his eye on a nearby middle school playground (he had given up on the baseball field). "With all of these new crafts, you can really do stupid things."
Sicherman is by no means the first commercial drone operator to be caught off guard by the rule. "It is very common," explained Brendan Schulman, a national advisory board member of the US Association of Unmanned Aerial Videographers and DJI’s vice president of Policy & Legal Affairs. Worryingly, many operators simply dismiss the certification requirement as unnecessary. "Most seem to ‘belly-ache’ about the pilot license requirement being almost completely irrelevant to drone flying," says Rupprecht. "Yet these individuals spend very little time learning about airspace or meteorology, which are very relevant."
While learning how to fly a balloon might not have direct relevance to operating a drone safely, knowledge of the rules of airspace deconfliction and classification, which is required for all pilot certificates, certainly does. The consequences of operating a drone without airspace savvy can be grave. And instances of unsafe drone use are becoming worryingly common. Last month, firefighting aircraft were repeatedly forced to abort missions over California wildfires because of nearby drones, some of which are thought to have been used flying in a commercial newsgathering capacity. Meanwhile, last week, the FAA announced that so far this year there have been 650 near misses between crewed aircraft and errant drones, compared to 238 in all of 2014.
Sicherman is also by no means the only drone operator to find a creative solution to the certification problem. When Douglas Trudeau, a realtor in Arizona, was granted the first ever drone exemption for real estate photography, he, too, had no idea that he would need a pilot license in order to fly. "They did not make that clear until they started approving petitions," he wrote in an email. "Spending several thousand dollars to risk my life on a solo flight to pilot an airplane I will never fly again to commercially operate a quad-copter weighing under 3 pounds makes absolutely no sense at all."
Hiring a licensed pilot is cheaper than becoming one yourself
Turdeau decided against going to flight school. Instead, he came up with a solution that is just as pricey as Sicherman’s, and almost as odd. He found a local certified pilot whom he pays $100 an hour to physically operate the drone while Trudeau stands by, giving instructions.
According to Schulman, this is a common workaround for uncertified 333 holders. "The 'creative' approach seems to be to find retired pilots in the area and to offer them compensation to participate in the operation and to learn how to operate the UAS," he explained, adding that he considers it to be a counter-productive arrangement. "It means the person with the least experience at operating the UAS is the one required by the FAA to be in command."
After the flight, I watched Sicherman carefully pack up the balloon and the basket. When he spotted me watching him struggle to fold and tie the massive reams of colorful nylon, he just shook his head.
"Whether it’s a balloon or a helicopter or a plane or a glider," he said as we drove back to the Poughkeepsie train station, "the skills that you gain from actually piloting those crafts really, as far as I can tell, don’t really translate to piloting drones."
Many commercial operators fly without a license and assume they won't be caught
And yet Sicherman doesn’t want to follow the example of "the people who are just saying, ‘Screw the rules, I’m just going to fly anyway and hope I don’t get caught. As tempting as that is, it’s always better to be on the right side of the law, both for legal purposes and monetary purposes."
Perhaps the strangest thing about Sicherman’s adventure, as he likes to call it, is that in less than a year the FAA will finally release its new set of rules, meaning his ballooning license — and, by extension, all of the 4:45AM wake-ups, not to mention the five grand he has just spent — will no longer add any value for his drone photography business.
But that doesn’t mean he won’t still use it. Despite all his grumbling, he said that he had started to enjoy himself. He is even considering joining a ballooning club. "I’m getting kind of into it," he said.
UPDATE: Not only is pilot's license required to fly a commercial drone, but the license must be kept current, meaning pilots must fly a minimum of three flights every 90 days.