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An airline captain and drone pro shares his rules of the sky

Story & Heart
October 21, 2015 by Story & Heart PRO

Over the past few years, there has been a massive influx of drones entering the airspace (with another million joining the fleet this upcoming holiday season alone). This uptick in sUAS (small unmanned aircraft systems) sales not only means that a new wave of pilots are learning how to fly, but also that more filmmakers are entering the skies. Given that we’re talking about machines flying through the air, it’s important to know the rules so we all can make art, not airborne disasters/crimes.

In that spirit, we reached out to Scott Strimple — a member of both the Story & Heart and Vimeo communities and an active United Airlines captain and drone enthusiast — to learn about the basic dos and don’ts for creators while also clearing the air (ahem) about flying a drone for commercial filmmaking. As a follow-up, we’re hosting an online chat with Scott and fellow drone operators on Tuesday, November 3, so block off your iCal and reserve your spot for the free event.

... sometimes drone pilots have to sacrifice the mission for the greater cause.”

When we reached out to Scott, we wanted to hear more about how a United Airlines pilot with more than 25,000 flight hours took up a career in video production. Scott shared that he and his wife entered the world of video production as a tertiary career, though he’s still very much an active pilot. Scott explains, “While many may recognize [my wife and I] for our filmmaking efforts in the event world, few are actually aware that I am still an active captain and FAA check airman for United Airlines with more than 25,000 flight hours.”

Though he didn’t get into video production until 2001, Scott adds, “I was smitten as a young boy with the wonder of flight and have actively been flying radio-control aircraft for more than 44 years.”

Given his background as a pilot, Scott reiterated how crucial it is for drone filmmakers to be mindful. “While the ‘physical experience’; of piloting a manned aircraft from sitting at the controls is virtually void of any meaningful similarities to operating a modern ‘drone,’ the physics, aeronautical knowledge, and need for professional standards are all quite similar. As drone operators we stand to learn a lot from manned aviation in the U.S. as its tenure of safe operations transcends other mode[s] of transportation.” 

... there continues to be a movement afoot to restrict our aerial photography craft based on a perception that one’s privacy is being invaded.”

Scott dug into the specifics of the FAA rules and best practices, which we’ve compiled into an easy-to-digest numbered list:

  1. Don’t interfere with manned aircraft operations. Stay well clear of airplanes and helicopters and let them do their thing!
  2. Avoid flying within five miles of an airport. (Unless you get permission, in which case, you have permission!)
  3. Fly your drones below 400 feet. This is an FAA requirement to ensure we’re all respecting our airplane neighbors.
  4. Actually have eyeballs on what you’re doing. Helicopters frequently operate below 400 feet, so it’s important to have a visual observer with you monitoring the area while you maintain visual site of your drone at all times.  
  5. Don’t let your drone blades get too close to your BFF. The potential for injury when flying over people is often overlooked. The FAA — and all your human friends, for that matter! — kindly insists that you refrain from flying your drone near or above people.  

The last point about being cognizant of fellow humans is important for two reasons: the first and most obvious is safety, and the second relates to privacy.

“Although we have long-standing privacy laws established in our society, there continues to be a movement afoot to restrict our aerial photography craft based on a perception that one’s privacy is being invaded. This has resulted in [the passing of] local statutes around the country [that] prohibit the flight of drones due to the fear of privacy invasion,” Scott writes.

This may be the single biggest issue that could bring the drone movement to a grinding halt. “If anything will hinder our rights to fly our cameras, it will be the operation of a drone over private property without the permission of the owner and those present on the ground. This [means] sometimes drone pilots have to sacrifice the mission for the greater cause.”

Now that you’re familiar the laws of the sky, drone filmmaking is like everything else in life: be sure to practice, practice, practice.

“If you want to fly safely and be able to divert some of your attention to your camera work while filming, you will want to spend hours building your muscle memory and practicing maneuvers before ever putting your camera to use.”

To that point, if you’re just getting started, this free tutorial from SaintWest Filmworks is a great asset. 

We also asked Scott to discuss flying drones commercially, and the specific rules around making money with your drone. We’ll let him do the talking (er, typing) on this one:

“In February of 2015, the FAA released a long-awaited notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM), which details specific regulatory changes and supporting information to be used during the public comment period.


p>While the NPRM contains many operating rules and restrictions, it’s important to understand the NPRM is not law and that as of Oct 1, 2015, the FAA has once again missed their congressional deadline to have published the actual regulation for commercial operation of small unmanned aircraft. The latest amendment is scheduled for June of 2016. The FAA continues to maintain that currently within the United States, there are three ways to operate an unmanned aircraft:  

  1. Recreationally
  2. For business
  3. As a public entity such as a first responder, university, etc.”

At the end of the day… you will still be expected to operate at a level of safety that is commensurate with a professional pilot”

If you’re flying drones for business purposes, then you need to get a fancy-sounding thing called a section 333 exemption until there are actual sUAS rules in place. There is some debate as to the interpretation of this — the FAA has made it clear you need this exemption, but many people are operating drones safely without it and haven’t had any run-ins with the regulation agency. Scott adds, “At the end of the day you will make your choice based on your own personal agenda, but you will still be expected to operate at a level of safety that is commensurate with a professional pilot.”  

Many thanks to Scott for laying down the drone law for us!


p>For those that are curious about acquiring a section 333 exemption, visit the FAA section 333 page. And if you’re looking to boost your drone know-how even more (who isn’t?!?), then we’ll see you at our FREE drone chat featuring Scott and a panel of expert drone operators.


Kevin A. Powers

Scott: We truly need more people like you, well said indeed!! I follow those same rules and am obtaining my Private now! Great stuff

Mark Fenton

Great article, but I wish more people talked about the pilot's license limitation. My business would definitely love to add aerial video to its arsenal, but the pilots license requirement under the Section 333 exemption is just too cost prohibitive ($3000+ for a sport pilot license!). This problem for small video production business isn't being discussed much. And operating "under the radar" and skipping over this rule just isn't an option, when my business, and our client's reputation is at stake.

Story & Heart PRO

Great suggestion, Mark. Definitely check out our upcoming webinar as we'll dive into this at length:

Contrast Visuals PRO

Since the webinar is over, any word on what was discussed? If a pilot's license is so important, then why would the FAA freely grant 333 exemptions to people who haven't shown proof of the license? A pilot's license also isn't something listed in the notice of proposed rulemaking. For most people this single stipulation makes having a 333 exemption almost moot.

John David Galt

400 feet seems just a little too low to me. I would like to see a law requiring permission of the property owner for any overflight below about 1000 feet, and making it open season on your drone if you go below that. Privacy trumps having fun with your toy aircraft.

Ray Jaekwon Chang Plus

Under FAA regulations, over populated areas, aircraft cannot go below 1000 ft AGL, over unpopulated areas they may go as low as 500 ft AGL. Helicopters usually stay at 500 ft AGL as minimums but can go lower if need be (ie. emergency responders, etc). So 400 ft is pretty makes sense. Also, I went to a seminar hosted by the Society of Aerial Cinematographers, and they pretty much agree 400 ft is pretty generous, most dont go past 100ft, if that for their shots.

Edison Kertawijaya

I don't think 400 feet are enough for professional drone shoot. And How to handle for area without gps signal with a lot of buildings at the sides

Ray Jaekwon Chang Plus

This was a great article! Appreciate that the source is an airline pilot. Thanks guys! I myself am an aviator/filmmaker. I have been watching to see FAA rulings so I can add Aerial Cinematography to my skill set.

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