Flight Crew Throwing in the Aviation Towel too Soon to fly Drones

An interesting short blog post from a good friend of mine (wishing to remain anonymous) who wanted to write about the fact that a lot of experienced flight crew (and other aviation professionals) are (due the impact of this pandemic) throwing in the towel and quitting the industry to concentrate on other ventures, specifically drones, even based on the rather tenuous aviation links. Evidently, it might not be the best course of action.

“Well, it’s 11:30 a.m. one Winter’s day in January 2020 after a very early start, and I’m drinking a lukewarm cup of coffee from a paper cup as I look out of the cockpit windows at the spectacular views around the city of Lisbon as we make our way to Lanzarote with an aircraft full of smiling holiday makers. It’s my sector so I hope my landing doesn’t rattle the teeth of my captain as I’ve not done this route for a while and it’s a bit breezy down there.”

Looking back at my innocent thoughts during that brief moment in aviation time, little did I know about the impending coronavirus pandemic and the devastating impact it would have on my industry; if I’m honest I would have struggled to even spell it, let alone know what it was! However, it would all come to fruition in the coming months with such cataclysmic consequences for the aviation world, but also the wider world in general.

Incidentally, my landing was great (I would say that though) but like many other pilots, I was unfortunately furloughed not long into the pandemic when restrictions on travel made it unviable for airlines to operate any but a tiny number of tourist routes. Having spent many years in the industry working on the ground and finally in the air, I knew just how volatile it was, and I was always trying to think about ways I could diversify and not have all my eggs in one basket – this is what we do as pilots, to mitigate and limit risk, right?

A good friend of mine who was also a furloughed pilot had about eight months previously (and way before any talk of a pandemic) purchased some rather impressive drone equipment and started a small business. I remember vividly nearly choking on my pint one day when we were having a catch up in the pub when he told me the eye watering total cost of what he’d bought. His plan was to use the drone business as a backup to his flying career, and to keep the financial wolves from the door if there was period where he would be unable to fly. He’d enjoyed flying drones in his spare time and had been convinced, or was it brainwashed into believing that a small independent drone business could make money.

Having no real knowledge of the drone industry, to me it sounded really promising and the more we talked I became convinced I wanted some of it. So I decided to try my hand in this sector. After all, there wasn’t much to do whilst sat in the perpetual metaphorical holding pattern waiting for our main careers to resume, other than to go to the pub to get that social fix with our other grounded friends, and to crank up the PlayStation in the evening to relieve the boredom of each Groundhog Day (a great film by the way).

My colleague advised me that I’d need to do something called a PfCO (Permission for Commercial Operation) before I could do paid drone work, which was effectively like a mini commercial pilot’s licence. I talked to numerous drone organisations who offered varied rates on PfCO training courses and equipment, and chose one of the larger ones to do my training with; not because they were considered better than most but because of the proximity to where I live. Clearly with an ATPL and flying as an airline pilot, the drone training would be quite straight forward I thought. Thankfully it was, and in a short space of time I completed my training, then my flight test, and subsequently invested in high end enterprise level drone equipment (now I really needed that pint), and joined the business. The thinking was – the more the investment in equipment, the more chance of elevating ourselves above the plethora of small drone businesses out there; yes, we hadn’t realised just how many other people had listened to the promises from the training companies that the drone industry was going to boom in the coming months and years. You could almost compare some of these companies and promises to the pyramid selling schemes that were rife in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

We worked hard to build a business and we spent a lot of money in the process – thankfully we had a little more cash than some of those less fortunate than us who might have even gambled their savings to get a foothold in the industry. But the sad fact is that it almost felt like a re-run (but less costly) of the days when we were doing our flight training during the last down turn; burning cash like it was going out of fashion because we’d committed to and had become obsessed with what might be between those ever moving goalposts. Who has a bottomless pit of cash to continue like that?

I’m not blowing my own trumpet here, but as a seasoned and proven aviation professional I know my stuff, and will kickstart my flying career as soon as the economic and Covid situation improves, but as far as the drones go, and since embarking on this new venture we have found work difficult to win; not because of our product, nor through lack of networking and marketing. We’ve simply found that the very same people and organisations who trained us, and promised to help with generating new business are themselves training our potential industry customers in drone technology, which they then introduce in house, making it almost impossible to generate a foothold.

During the second lockdown, we’ve spoken to numerous drone operators who are struggling and equally frustrated at these organisations who offer training / help to build your
business only to act in the above manner.

The coming months are going to be interesting to say the least, and as a seasoned commercial pilot, to my fellow aviators considering embarking on a drone training course for commercial work, I would implore you to exercise extreme caution. If you’re thinking about entering the drone world as a business venture then consider how it was back in the day when you were first training to fly aeroplanes – when that first foot on the ladder was a long way off. This is the same; it is not going to be a quick financial fix unless you’re goal is just to get some occasional work from your local estate agent doing property portfolios.

Personally, and with hindsight, I would be thinking about having those vital financial resources available to cover medical and LPC renewals, or even sim refreshers before investing in drones. The work just isn’t currently there except for the occasional lucky few – similar to those who were in the right place at the right time with 200 hours and a Frozen ATPL!

Let’s all hope for a brighter 2021, when we can visit family, go to the match, and have a pint without a Scotch Egg!

If after reading the above you are still thinking of embarking on a drone career, and would like to know more about my experience, please contact the website owner who will put you in touch with me.