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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

What it takes to be a drone pilot

Hello again from John,

In my last blog, I was discussing the steps involved for a company to become a commercial drone operator. Once a company has obtained the ROC, pilots will be needed to fly the drones.

An RPAS Pilot Licence holder is on the same scale as an Airbus A380 pilot, in the same way a moped is on the same scale as an Australian outback road train. Same same but VERY different.

Jokes aside, here in South Africa the process to obtain a drone pilot licence is far more in depth than many other countries. This is bit of a double-edged sword, as it means a high bar to pass but is also a barrier to entry just like the ROC process.

There are a couple of minimum requirements before you can start the process. Applicants must be at least 18 years old, and pass a medical assessment carried out by an authorized medical examiner. You can find a medical examiner here.

There are three different aircraft categories for the pilot licence: Airplane, Helicopter, and Multirotor which is your common drone with more than two motors.

Then there are three ratings: Visual Line Of Sight or VLOS, Extended-VLOS or E-VLOS, and Beyond-VLOS or B-VLOS.

You would have to complete training for each aircraft category and rating. Some schools run specials with combined categories and ratings.

Once you have an idea of aircraft category and rating you are after, you need to contact an Approved Training Organization and book the ground school portion. The list of Approved Training Organizations can be found on the CAA website here.

Ground school covers these topics; Human Factors, Air Law and Procedures, Navigation and Flight Planning, Meteorology, Principles of Flight, RPAS Controls, and Technical which deals with motors, batteries and so on. Each of these has an exam to be completed, although it does not have to be immediately after the ground school.

Aviation Radio and Restricted Radio Use is an additional subject and has two exams to be completed.

After ground school is completed, you can move on to flight training. Different schools use different processes, but a general method would be to start with a simulator, then move onto a small toy aircraft, and then onto a full-size drone.

Once the instructor is satisfied with your skills, and your exams are all completed, you can move onto the Sign Out process. This the “final exam” with a Designated Flight Examiner from the CAA. This will consist of an interview, a review of the flight planning documents prepared by the pilot for the day, and a flight demonstration.

The licence, or each aircraft category, is valid for 2 years from issue. Fortunately, we don’t have to do all the exams again, but a refresher with an instructor and some flight skills polishing is usually necessary before we do the Sign Out with the Flight Examiner.

Till next time, fly safe,

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