Matt Gerard is floating high in the sky, learning to fly a hot air balloon, even though he will probably never do so again.
“I have no plans to fly a hot air balloon again any time in the near future,” he says.
Welcome to the weird world of the FAA’s commercial drone regulations. For the last five or so years, since the advent of the consumer drone market, it has been illegal under FAA regulations to fly a drone for commercial purposes without a pilot’s certificate. The regulation applies to fixed-wing aircraft like small planes as well as to other types of aircraft like powered parachutes, gliders and hot air balloons. Learning to fly a hot air balloon is the fastest and cheapest way to get a pilot’s license, so many people are taking lessons with the intent of meeting FAA requirements, then applying to fly a drone.
“I have seen people get their balloon certificate from start to finish in a week,” says David Lynch, an FAA certified hot air balloon examiner.
The recently issued Smart Unmanned Aircraft Rule Part 107 will change that, however, allowing drone operators the opportunity to fly commercially if they are at least 16 years old, and if they pass a written exam proving they understand how to operate a drone in federal air space. The new rule goes into effect in late August.
For a small group of would-be pilots who simply can’t wait that long, or who were already taking courses before the rule was released, getting a hot air balloon license has become the go-to means for FAA approval to commercially fly a drone.
Gerard, a employee for a Los Angeles land surveying company, is among those who want to fly a drone now, rather than wait. He started his hot air balloon classes two months ago, and recently got his fight certificate and FAA clearance to fly.
He’s already taken his drone out on several test flights. “As I’ve learned more about what they can do and their application to land survey, it’s pretty exciting,” he says.