A drone pilot becomes an airplane pilot

A couple of years ago as I was embarking on a big career transition I started working on my drone ground school training. I was already flying and filming with drones a lot and the plan was to become a legal, certified UAV operator up here in Canada and maybe try to make a living at it.

As I started my education, I was amazed at the amount of information and detail that I was expected to learn about this newfound world that had apparently always existed overhead. UAV Ground School certainly wasn’t the “stay below 400 ft, try not to crash your drone into anyone” kind of course that I was expecting it to be. Instead, I was faced with a full-blown aviation ground school program with nearly all the modules and content that is taught to a student pilot working towards their private pilot’s license.

Drone pilot
Does this type of flying lead to airplane flying? Sometimes.

I was certainly surprised, and a little daunted, by everything that I was expected to learn but as I progressed through the material I found that I really started to enjoy it as well. Gaining all that knowledge about weather, air law, the theory of flight, human factors and the rest of the ground school syllabus was certainly challenging, but I also found it completely captivating as well. I hadn’t “gone back to school” since leaving school back in grade 11 so it took some time to kick start my brain and learn how to learn again. This is something I hear from others as well. Particularly folks who are a little older like me who are embarking on a career in aviation a little later in their lives.

Taking the UAV Ground School course certainly did make me a better, safer drone operator which was the original plan. The process also had an interesting side effect and that was to rekindle a lifelong love of airplanes and general aviation. This is a passion that had been handed down from my grandfather, who had flown in World War II. It was a career path that I had once considered a long time ago but it had somehow fallen by the wayside. All through my life, aviation was on my mind but for some reason or other I always put it on hold as other aspects of life always grabbed my attention.

By the time I received my official Drone Ground School accreditation I was well and truly hooked on aviation again. I figured that I already had half the work done so I immediately signed up to do my full private pilot ground school and I booked my first training flights in a real airplane with an instructor. Little did I realize at that time how much more work was involved in becoming a real pilot…

The closest local airport to me is Brantford (CYFD), which is 25 minutes from my home in Ontario. The Brantford Flying Club (now Brantford Flight Centre) is one of the oldest flight schools in Canada and was a great place to do my initial training. CYFD is your standard WWII style uncontrolled airport with the triangle configuration of six runways and it was the perfect place to learn. The airport is surrounded by miles of flat farmland that provides mental comfort for a student pilot. Yet it is close enough to bigger challenges like the airspace around Toronto and the Great Lakes.

Tom Comet by airplane
Making the jump.

This diversity keeps it interesting. CYFD has the usual old-timey, authentic airport restaurant that harkens back to a different time when folks came together at the airport to just visit and enjoy themselves. It is also the homebase for several innovative aviation-related businesses and contains the usual cast of characters scattered around that keeps it lively. Sometimes it feels like a real-life reality TV show.

On my first day of flight training, I was surprised when I got to pilot the aircraft myself. I continued to be amazed by the challenges that were thrown my way every lesson from that day onward during my training. After 35 hours of flying with my instructor, I kicked him out of the right seat and completed my first solo flight.

As with many solo flights, mine was not without its complications. What started out as a calm, quiet, clear day immediately blossomed into what appeared to be the busiest day I had ever seen in the circuit. In retrospect, I am sure much of this was my own mental perception, but I do vividly recall having to do a go around as a 152 loitered for far too long on short final while I had a Bearskin Airlines Fairchild Metroliner coming up quickly behind me. Of course, I came out of it unscathed, wiser, and above all else – a student pilot! What a rush that was – to be able to be alone in the aircraft as the pilot-in-command!

A year and a half after I started my flight training, I successfully completed my flight test and realized the dream of becoming a Private Pilot. This was a real cause for celebration and a milestone in my life for sure.

Now it is a couple of years later I now have my night rating as well as my newly minted multi-engine rating. The night rating is a unique requirement in Canada and is usually the first rating new pilots get after their private license. It consists of additional dual instrument and night flights and has proven invaluable to me since as I do a lot of nighttime commutes.

A few months ago I bought my first airplane, a 1977 Cessna Skymaster F337G. It is an unusual choice for a first plane, I’ll admit, but I have always done things a little differently and I just love it. I was in a partnership on a 172 before the 337 for a year but that plane was too small for my needs. For me and my missions, the 337 is the perfect aircraft. I use it to transport my specialized team and equipment reliably around the country. It enables me to efficiently enlarge the territory where I provide specialty drone services and it allows me to have a lot of fun while doing it with a large margin of safety (two engines, big tanks, deicing etc.).

Cessna 337
A drone ground school led to a Cessna 337.

In aviation, there is always something more to work towards and to learn so I continue to educate myself as I study and train for my IFR rating and, who knows, maybe even my commercial rating sometime down the road. It is an amazing feeling to walk up to an aircraft with a set of keys and have the knowledge and ability to fly that aircraft anywhere in the seemingly unlimited sky above. Perspectives soar as the world and perceived distances between places shrink away below. I feel extremely fortunate to be able to experience this on a regular basis in my own aircraft.

Ironically, the reason that I finally followed through on my lifelong dream of flying airplanes is because I started flying drones. Now I teach UAV Ground School at the same airport where I learned to fly airplanes and my plane is hangared there too. Perfect!

It is interesting how in life one thing always leads to another and the path forward (or upwards) may not always be what you expected when you start the process. Look for the small hints and clues and always follow your dreams!

If you are an airplane pilot, don’t be so hard on all us drone guys. At least not those of us who take the time to learn, follow the rules and operate safely. And for anyone out there who thinks you might be interested in learning to fly, do yourself a favor and book yourself a “familiarization flight” at your local flight school to see what all the fuss is about. I am sure glad I did!

3 Comments

  • Tom,
    Hey, this a real feel-good story that reminds me of some of the personal testimonies I used to read in Flying Magazine back in the more innocent days of the 1960s and 70s. I always like to hear of someone who “stumbles into aviation” and makes a real go of it. I hope you enjoy the heck out of airplane, your license, and life in general. Very good reading here. Thanks.

  • A nice story with a happy end. Glad that you did enjoy your ground school while studying for your PPL, I had the same experience 10 years ago when I followed my life-long interest in flying with a discoveryflight. I was a professional photographer for 25 years and I am now an aerial photographer, combining two interesting fields: photography and aviation. Good luck with your beautiful Skymaster 337.

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