I packed up the drone and headed up to the mountains of North Carolina for a friend’s wedding. Looking forward to a great weekend of festivities, I was also dreaming of the awesome shots I’d be able to take from the air – I’ve been wanting to get my Phantom 4 into the mountains for while now. The day before our departure, my wife heard about fires in the mountains of Lake Lure – right where we were staying. Calling the resort, I felt confident that we’d still be able to go. Tension picked up, however, on the drive there.  We got a text from the bride-to-be that one of the major roads into the resort were closing due to the fires. Routing ourselves appropriately, we got to just a few miles away from the resort before hitting a road block. “Guest of the hotel, huh? Well you can try, but the state troopers probably won’t let you by,” we were told. As we rounded a bend and saw the resort in the distance, we also saw the flashing lights of the state troopers. Thankfully they were positioned just feet past the resort, granting us access. Checking in to the beautiful, nearly 100 year old hotel, we learned there was no cell service.  Setting out to find anyone from the wedding party the old fashioned way – by walking around – all the lights went dark. No power. I was sure that our evacuation was imminent. Helicopters were flying over dropping water just up the hill, and planes were dropping loads of theorange stuff – it must be the only good use for Tang these days. But we lucked out after a little time in the dark – the power came back on, the wedding party was found, and a good time was had. The next morning, I set out on a walk to scout the area and enjoy the mountain air. Everything inside me wanted to launch the drone in the gorgeous morning air. The air was calm and the smoke had largely cleared out of our area. The flight was a no-go, though, and I knew it. Why? Let’s go through my thought process and explore some good reasons NOT to fly.

 

1. Hazard Proximity
While I don’t recall a specific rule outlined in part 107 about flying near a wildfire, there’s a certain common sense feeling that kicks in when contemplating even flying a reasonable distance away. I did, however, read stories about fire crews having to ground their operation while waiting on a rogue drone to clear the area – all while the world is burning. While the planes and helicopters have not shown to be flying yet this morning, I’m gonna go with my gut on this filter.  Wildfires and drones don’t mix.  Drone stays in the bag.

Caption

A helicopter drops water on the burning mountains of Lake Lure.

 

2. Weather 
Alright, so maybe the fires are not directly the issue if I drive down the road a bit. Nobody’s flying over the fires, so what if I were to just pop up for a few quick pictures. After all, I might reason that I could hear any aircraft coming, and I’d just stay well below the tree line in the first place. But it’s pretty hazy, so I’d better check the weather. Asheville (KAVL) is the nearest reporting station. And sure enough, out of the “METAR codes you don’t see every day” file comes the visibility of 2.5 miles in smoke (coded FU). The minimum visibility for drone flight is 3 miles. That’s an easy decision maker. The visibility is below minimums. The drone stays in the bag.

Caption

This Foreflight screen grab shows both the raw and decoded METAR showing 2.5 mile visibility in smoke. Learn to read a METAR here.

 

3. Flight Restriction
Ok, so what if I wait for it to clear a bit and walk down the road, away from the fire? Once Asheville starts reporting 3 miles, I’m in the clear, right? Not so quick. I’m a pilot, so I have Foreflight at my fingertips, but even without such a program, the B4UFly App has some valuable data to add. Popping it open, I found what I expected – a big shaded circle right over my area. The occasion? A temporary flight restriction – a five mile radius column of air from the ground to 8000 feet where flight is prohibited. There’s no way around that one.  Temporary Flight Restriction is a super no-go.  The drone stays in the bag.

Caption

Checking for TFRs might not be the first thing on a drone pilot’a mind, but you’d be wise to make it a part of your preflight ritual.

 

Meanwhile…On The Ground
Close your eyes (proverbially – this is a blog) and picture, if you will, a mountain scene. The multiple rows of mountain elevation fade with each layer in the distance. The colors pop and the sunlight contributes just the right levels of exposure and color while adding a golden hue to the shadowy trees hanging from the mountain tops. You feel as though you are sitting on a high peak, surveying all of the other peaks around you. A bird, gliding on a thermal, holds its wings in a graceful spread. You get the idea. Well, this verbal bit of Bob Ross footage is about the best aerial picture I can bring back to you after this weekend. Disappointing? Sure, to a point. But such is life. As pilots or drone pilots, we must make the choice to do the right thing even in times where gray areas might cause us to justify our decision to fly. I’ll leave you with a quote by Viper from Top Gun. “Top Gun rules of engagement are written for your safety and for that of your team. They are not flexible, nor am I. Either obey them or you are history. Is that clear?”

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2 Comments

  1. Kevin Malley

    Wise choice Clay, I certainly respect your exercising caution in light of the circumstances! I hope for the decision making you posses, when it comes time for me to make the same type of calls.

    Reply
    • Clay

      Thanks Kevin! It would have been easy to overlook or violate any of these – and without bad intent.

      Reply

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