Flying Drones in CLASS C Airspace – You mean they’ll let you?

By David Cooke, Guest Contributor

There are procedures now to fly UAVs in any controlled airspace as long as you have an advanced RPAS license and an aircraft declared “SAFE” by the manufacturer. Simple. Now you just go on the NavCanada website and file a request. 

This all started back in AUG 2018, with a simple request from the Jet Air Museum (JAM) in London (CYXU). They wanted aerials of their hangar roof and apron area for some planned improvements. I’m a member there, so I suggested why not haul out the “Red Knight” a T-33 reminiscent of solo act from the famous Golden Hawks of 1960’s, and we can do some promotional video too. Also, I’d been working with the International Test Pilot’s School (ITPS) just across the taxiway, on UAV qualifications, and they wanted some video of their new jets and hangar expansion for a marketing video. I’ll just call up the tower and ask for permission. After all, the new PART IXS allows for flight in control zones.

Eight months later and hours of coordination planning, phone calls and emails I figured this should be a lot easier. After all, as a retired RCAF pilot, combat flying instructor, with a Jet/Helicopter commercial license, I know how to behave in controlled airspace. You call before entering and request a clearance with Call Sign, Type, Location, Altitude and intensions, and the tower controller says “You’re in for the Touch and Go”. No . . . flying drones is a far more complex and a risky business so you need to give them a bit more warning it seems. Transport Canada is ok with it, but NavCanada is not the government so they see this as increased traffic and extra work. After all they need to make a profit and keep the skies safe for everyone. 

With the new PART IX in the Canadian Air Regs, Nav Canada set up a “RPAS Flight Request” page where you request to fly a UAV in controlled airspace, ie anything but CLASS G. When they first announced, they suggested they could respond in “48hrs to 2 WEEKS” . . . yikes!! Try running a business on that kind of indefinite schedule. Fortunate, the reality of their early efforts meant they could actually turn a request around in an hour or so. An early attempt of mine, to fly here in Sarnia (a Mandatory Frequency CLASS E airspace) was approved in under 30 min. 

Great, I’ll just fill in one for London and off we go. Not so fast drone guy. When I requested to fly “On the airfield” at London Airport, I was told “Sorry we can’t approve that. You’ll have to talk to Mark”. More phone calls and emails and I got a 14-page document to sign that looked like a mini-SFOC just for one mission. Mark was great though and got it down to 7 pages eventually with maps and boundary coordinates for the flight as well as a few emergency procedures and contact numbers to call, so I don’t clutter up the tower Freq.

Then, I arrived back from a week in the UK Saturday evening Jul 6, to find that my DJI “UNLOCK” that was approved in April on an earlier attempt and was tested and working had now “expired” 5 days prior. No point driving to all the way to London only to find the aircraft inhibited from even starting by a Chinese server, that seems to be in charge of Canadian airspace. After some frantic Sunday emails to China and some testing of new UNLOCKs here in Sarnia, I drove to London Monday morning hoping it would all come together, with the help of a couple of test pilots as observers. Fortunately, the persistence prevailed, it all did. We got nice aerials for JAM and some amazing video of the ITPS test pilots with all their gear spread out on the tarmac.

After a lot of work…the drone’s eye view.

The lesson for CLASS C flying . .  “get qualified, get connected with Nav Canada, Plan Ahead and be persistent”. UAVs are already being treated like Aircraft with airframe registration, maintenance logs and equipment standards. Maybe someday their operators will be treated like pilots.

And another nice drone shot. In the end…clearly worth it!

About the Author: David Cooke, Chief Pilot for CANDA Inc., inskyphoto.com, is a retired military pilot (RCAF). In addition to over 3000 hrs of low-level reconnaissance and observation experience he has built and flown UAVs since 2014, evaluating visible and Infrared sensor alternatives that can produce as good or better surveillance products than many of the more expensive systems. He holds as Advanced RPAS Certificate and is also certified as a UAV/RPAS Flight Reviewer for Transport Canada.

Here is a video link to some of the results.

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