Drones pose huge risk to hero firefighting pilots

4 May, 2017 | Kishugu Aviation

The drone industry has truly taken off since these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), commonly known as drones, were first introduced as military tools less than two decades ago.

After the initial apprehension to and suspicion of drones had subsided, the use thereof, both professionally and for recreation, skyrocketed. Although it is becoming increasingly common seeing a drone passing overhead, one should not ignore the dangers that come with this new toy – especially for pilots.

“When a plane, flying at 120 knots, hits a drone, it is equivalent to a brick being thrown through your windshield. The damage it will cause to a pilot’s face and the aircraft will almost certainly lead to a crash.” This is one of the many challenges Kishugu Aviation spotter pilot, Erick Nel, faces while serving his community doing aerial firefighting.

Nel recalls an incident in September 2016, when veld fires blazed through stretches of plantations between Sabie and White River. A large number of Working on Fire ground crew and aerial firefighters fought to douse the flames. In the heat of the battle to save properties and lives, pilots discovered that a curious citizen was negligently flying his or her drone among the firefighting aircraft. “That drone could easily have infiltrated our airspace and crashed with one of our planes.”

It had become acutely obvious that people were uninformed of the technicalities and legalities of operating drones.

Kishugu Aviation’s Flight Operations Manager, Keith Whitehead, explains that the average drone can operate between 0 and 500 feet above ground level. “This is unfortunately also the airspace in which firefighting aircraft operate when they are busy extinguishing fires.” According to Whitehead, a mid-air collision between an aircraft and a drone could have disastrous results.

Amendments were made to the Civil Aviation Act in order to cater for the regulation of drones in July last year.

Drones are easily accessible, with prices as low as R1,000 for a standard drone. What many drone owners do not realise, is that Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) regulations state, that any RPA must be registered and may only be operated in terms of Part 101 of the South African Civil Aviation Regulations.

This means that any person who flies a drone is subject to the same qualification requirements as a Private Pilot License (PPL), which includes a compulsory English Language Proficiency test, a practical assessment, a Radiotelephony Examination and various medical assessments, to name a few.

According to the CAA’s website, the following legislation applies to owning and operating a drone:

Do not endanger the safety of another aircraft or person therein or any person or property through negligent flying/operation of a RPA, or drone.

Do not fly/operate a RPA, or drone 50m or closer from:
1. Any person or group of persons (like sports field, road races, schools, social events, etc.)
2. Any property without permission from the property owner.

Do not fly or operate a RPA or drone:
1. Near manned aircraft;
2. 10 km or closer to an aerodrome (airport, helipad, airfield);
3. Weighing more than 7kg;
4. In controlled airspace;
5. In restricted airspace;
6. In prohibited airspace.

Do not fly/operate a RPA, or drone higher than 150 feet from the ground, unless approved by the Director of Civil Aviation of the SACAA.

“Many uneducated drone operators are ignorant and try to show off by getting as close as possible to a fire or aircraft. Drone owners need to keep safety top of mind while operating a drone,” says Nel.

With the upcoming Winter Fire Season, which runs from May to October, Kishugu Aviation would like to urge drone owners to adhere to the rules as drones could pose a huge safety risk to their pilots.