Learning To Fly A Drone

Learning to fly a drone

AN INTERVIEW WITH ALAN PROTO, FOUNDER OF THE PHANTOM FLIGHT SCHOOL. IAN COLLEN TAKES YOU THROUGH A TYPICAL INTRODUCTION TO PILOTING A PHANTOM 3 PRO...

UPDATED :  

As you are probably well aware, pretty much anyone can buy themselves an off-the-shelf drone and take it flying within a matter of minutes of getting it out of the box.

However, at the very least we'd advise any soon-to-be pilots to give the manual a thorough read through first, and maybe do a little research before you take to the skies, just to prepare you for any potential problems and hopefully avoid crashing your expensive new toy before you've even had a chance to enjoy it.

An even smarter alternative is to get yourself some tutelage from a trained pilot: someone who can guide you through the basics and help you take your first few flights in a safe environment as you gradually get to grips with the controls.

However, as Alan Proto, founder of the Phantom Flight School, told us in a previous interview, there haven't always been too many places to get such training - outside of the rather more expensive NQE or PFAW courses.

Hence why the Phantom Flight School was created last year, and the reason why we headed up to a guest house outside of Bicester in Oxfordshire in order to discover what a typical lesson is like. Phantom Flight School hosts lessons across the country, with classes also held in London, Cambridge, Chester, Sevenoaks and Bournemouth.

We'd hoped we could hitch a short bus ride to our local Bournemouth site, but sadly our strong coastal winds makes that more of summer spot. However, Alan has certainly picked out a great site to fly, as the picturesque guest house is out in the middle of nowhere.

The taxi driver may have grumbled about it being a grind to get to, but that meant we'd be free from the dangers of nearby roads, and the only other passers-by were the guest house owner and her dog!

STAYING GROUNDED

Although we've flown before we opted for the full beginner's course for our lesson (planned to take around an hour and a half).

Even though we were familiar with most of the basics, there's never any harm in listening to someone else's take on drones and the surrounding technology, legislation and so on - as you can often pick up a few extra tips or better ways to explain things.

Other clients can request more advanced lessons, or training geared specifically towards their work, but we thought we'd start at the beginning - and, like all sensible introductions to drones should, the lesson begins on the ground.

Alan sat us down at a dining table in the guest house itself, with the Phantom 3 Pro we would be soon be flying laid out in front of us, and talked us through the basics of drone use.

Obviously this included the key legislation and regulations for flying (Alan critiques the heavy influence of aviation authorities dictating drone usage as being like "if scuba divers wrote the rules for snorkelers"). Plus there was a quick guide to other considerations such as the weather - simply put, 15 knots is the maximum safe wind speed and don't fly in the rain!

From there it was onto the Phantom 3 itself, with Alan giving us a quick tour of the key components of the drone before switching to the app and running through all of the on-screen elements there.

As mentioned, anyone can pick up a drone and get flying but actually taking the time to sit through some of the key functions and learning to identify the tools that will help you make safer, smoother flights and take sharper photos or better videos can be invaluable. Each element Alan went through seemed to have a word of advice, or sometimes just a personal preference, attached to it.

However, even though we'd covered some solid ground, there were still a lot of features that weren't covered (in particular some of the more detailed photo and video settings and options), but that's where further lessons come in.

According to Alan clients initially come to him to learn to fly, but then realise they're shooting bad videos and so come back to learn how to film better footage! However, for now, we'd covered enough to get ready to take flight.

PREPARE FOR TAKE OFF

learning to fly phantom 4 drone

Before we headed outside, Alan had some key pointers on safe flying. First on the list is to pick your flying site with care. So for your first few flights choose wide open spaces to reduce the risk of crashing - while also looking out for mobile masts or sources of electro-magnetic radiation, plus other environmental elements such as steel bridges that might affect the drone's compass.

His second point is to always have a purpose for each flight. Battery times are short, so you don't want to waste time in the air and, as Alan pointed out, idle thumbs can misbehave without a purpose - and the less time you're dawdling in the skies, the less time there is to crash!

And finally the key phrase: Keep it Simple. This is about walking before you can run, such as steering in a two-step 'L' shape rather trying to use both sticks to fly in a curve straight away.

There's a fine line between triumph and disaster and Alan keenly points out that our aim isn't to be a great pilot, it's about "staying back from the edge" - or just getting the job done and getting the drone down safely again.

With these points in mind, and a run-through of Alan's 25-point pre-flight checklist safely ticked off, we were finally ready to get the props spinning.

When we'd previously taken our very first flight there was some nervousness, and some of that still remained for this lesson - after all, this was someone else's kit we were suddenly responsible for!

However, the one thing this particular writer has always had in his favour is a long history of playing videogames - and so grabbing a multi-functional twin-stick controller isn't unfamiliar territory.

So if any of you are new to flying but a dab hand at Call of Duty, you should be on solid ground - albeit if we do still have to remind ourselves that most movement is made using the right stick with drones (whereas in games you mostly move with the left stick and steer the direction with the right).

Alan describes the Phantom 3's start-up technique as the "cross-eyed frog", for no other reason than pulling the two sticks inward and down makes them look slightly cross-eyed, and he thought a cross-eyed frog sounded funny.

And now we can't help but call it the cross-eyed frog as well! Having seen Alan already run through the process before us. the first move is to send the drone straight up into the air to a hover some 20ft above ground.

From here, a newcomer's first ever flight would be a basic square. With the drone always facing away from you, you'd fly straight ahead for around 100 metres, then move right by about the same distance, reverse it back towards you and head left to your original starting point, before slowly lowering the Phantom 3 for landing.

It's a simple enough route, but for a novice it can still be quite a thrill to nail that first flight and officially consider yourself to be a rookie pilot.

FLYING COLOURS

The next flight took the same path, but this time turning the Phantom to face in the direction you're flying, so you're picking up the basics of turning the drone - and perhaps combining line-of-sight with the on-screen display to ensure you're making tidy 90-degree turns at each corner.

At this point Alan turned of the GPS and took us into Atti mode, to highlight how even light winds can easily take the drone away from you should you lose your GPS signal. We maxed out at around 2.5 knots (or less than 3mph) and would still have lost sight of the Phantom 3 in a couple of minutes had we not taken control and steered it back towards us.

Back on the ground, and back in the warmth of the guest house. Alan then ran us through a sizeable list of Do's and Don'ts when it comes to flying (too many to give them all here but they're all listed in the printout Alan gives each new client).

Most of them might seem like common sense, especially to a trained pilot - but that doesn't mean that they aren't worth repeating. As Alan told us: "For every Do, one of my clients didn't, and for every Don't, someone did."

We still had a little time left before the lesson came to an end, and so Alan ran us through the next step, which was a guide to some of the Phantom 3's Intelligent Flight modes.

Even if you've never flown before you can see how something like the Point of Interest function or using Way points can make filming cool videos incredibly easy - and in a few short moments we were already working on an imaginary promo video for the guest house (although the fact we weren't actually recording might have been a problem!).

Certainly we can see how in one short and simple lesson anyone can be taken from a curious wannabe to someone keen and confident enough to take a drone out and start shooting some videos.

Sure, we can appreciate that some people will take to flying quicker than others (Alan talks of some clients who aren't video game veterans and may find the controls a lot more awkward to get used to), but by getting some expert tuition you should not only feel more prepared for what flying a drone involves, but also more aware of the options and opportunities available to you.

If you want to just buy yourself a drone and entrust that you can fire it up. send it into the skies and 'just get it' and learn as you go, then that's absolutely your choice.

But if you wrap it around a tree or lose it in a lake due to one simple mistake, then the cost of replacing it wil l be considerably more the price of having an expert talk you through those first few flights.

So, if you are new to the wonderful world of drones and think you might be serious about getting involved in it, then you would be wise to consider taking a flying lesson or two. If nothing else, you'll learn a few things you may otherwise miss - and you won't be able to wait until you're up in the air again!

how to fly a drone

BIRD WATCHING

Another benefit of training with an experienced pilot is the rather more 'unscripted' moments, or things that wouldn't be in a conventional manual that they can help you with. One such example occurred during our lesson, when a low-flying duck took off from the trees to our left.

At this point Alan calmly explained what to do if a bird does take an interest in your airborne drone - bearing in mind that any kind of contact is likely to cause damage to at least one party, if not both.

Rather than flying away horizontally, or even flying in a circle while trying to get some fun footage which will only entice the bird further, he advises simply pushing the left stick up to gain altitude quickly - far quicker than any bird could - to reach a safe spot.

It's the kind of thing many seasoned pilots would know, but you're not likely to find in a quick Google search for 'flying a drone'.