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Drone Operations Near Air/Heliports in Class G Airspace

Source: FAA Safety Briefing Mar/Apr 2021
By: John Reinhardt

One of my favorite travel spots is the island of Culebra, a municipality of Puerto Rico. The island has many great locations for videography including its crown jewel, Flamenco Beach — rated as one of the top ten beaches in the world. I recently traveled to Culebra and brought my DJI Mavic Mini drone to take videos of the island’s beauty. Allow me to share some of the risk mitigation strategies (RMS) I used to fly while operating near an airport and heliport in uncontrolled airspace. Flight safety is paramount no matter where you are — in a busy city or in paradise.

Culebra is about 20 miles east of Puerto Rico measuring around seven miles long by two miles wide. The island is hilly with a maximum peak height of 646 feet at Mount Resaca. It has a general aviation airport, Benjamin Rivera Noriega (CPX), north of Dewey that offers scheduled passenger service. The single runway designated 13/31 is 2,600 feet in length, 50 feet wide, and at 49 feet mean sea level (MSL). Airport operations are limited to propeller aircraft with 10 seats or less. There is also a private heliport, Hill, southwest of town that is 60 feet long, 60 feet wide, and at 80 feet MSL. The scheduled and unscheduled flights go to other airports in Puerto Rico and neighboring islands.

As a part 107 certificated remote pilot, I know that while operating my drone in the vicinity of airports I cannot “interfere with operations and traffic patterns at any airport, heliport, or seaplane base” (14 CFR section 107.43). I must yield the right of way to all aircraft and “may not pass over, under, or ahead of it unless well clear” (14 CFR section 107.37). To plan my first flight, I checked the B4UFLY app to check on any restrictions at Linda Bay near Dewey. Unfortunately, the app did not support this location — it couldn’t tell me if I could fly there or not. So I went to the SkyVector website to review the aeronautical chart for CPX and Drone Notices to Airmen (DROTAMs). Both facilities were in Class G airspace with no notices. Low Altitude Advanced Notification Capability (LAANC) airspace authorization was not needed because the flight would occur in uncontrolled airspace. Therefore, I was cleared for takeoff.

While on the island, I successfully conducted 34 flights using the following 10 RMS:

1. Learn take-off and landing schedules and traffic patterns to avoid flying at the same time and airspace.

2. Use FlightAware to track flights.

3. Do not fly within the airport traffic pattern (DJI installed a “well-clear” geo-fence in the Mavic Mini software; the geo-fence kept the drone 2,000 feet away from the runway centerline and from entering the takeoff and landing paths).

4. Shadow the hills and mountains and fly alongside them.

5. Use infrastructure masking (I flew very close to power lines and structures).

6. Monitor the airspace for sights and sounds of air traffic.

7. Learn tips from a local drone pilot (I met a local pilot who is an emergency medical technician).

8. Program the remote controller to maintain maximum horizontal and vertical distances of 300 feet — this maintains proper visual line of sight and aircraft altitude.

9. Fly at low altitudes and film at slow speeds (cinematic mode).

10. Be ready to lower to a safe altitude (15-20 feet above ground level (AGL)) if there are any signs of an aircraft approaching the area of operation.

By using these strategies, I was able to safely film eight locations and create content that highlights the beauty of this island. To see one of the videos I created, visit bit.ly/CulebraIsland.

John Reinhardt is a program manager in the UAS Integration Office’s Operational Program Branch. He currently manages the FAA’s UAS Test Sites Program.

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