My Drone Journey - From Beginner to PfCO by Richard Johnson

In all honesty, I have never been interested in flying model aircraft, drones or photography or videography for that matter; so why do I now find myself as the proud owner of a Mavic 2 Pro (commonly referred to as a “flying toaster” by one of my more professional drone colleagues) & why I find myself part way through the completion of my Permissions for Commercial Operations (PfCO) certification?

(Incidentally, my colleague flies a drone that weighs about 26Kg – so about the same as a microwave!)

The size does not matter - after all, all drones are a bloomin nuisance, just toys and invaders of privacy aren’t they?

So what is it all about, why fly drones, what’s involved; how do you make the thing fly and more importantly come back?

Again – even when I talk to my friends they think the drones are a nuisance.  In fact no-one seems to want to let people fly, or even practice with them.  Local councils, parks and open spaces “all say no”.

In reality, the drone technology is here to stay, it’s improving all of the time and there are more applications being developed for recreational and commercial purposes.  The drone industry is being fuelled by Smart Phone technology and an incredible array of applications – The drone is a mobile phone with propellers.  Think of your smart phone, camera, sensors, GPS, pressure sensors – you name it – there’s an App for it… now add propellers and what have you got?  A new industry for fun, recreation or commercial gain.

Drones can be used to remove the risks to humans in a plethora of different industries, jobs and roles.  You are only limited by your own imagination. New legislation will allow this industry to grow.

So what’s the interest in drones?
By my very nature, I am cautious, overly cautious, in fact I am surprised I spent the money in the first place.
For me, my drone journey has a number of driving factors.

  1. Dare I say “I wanted to meet new people” – having met other flyers at the Leicester Drone Club we have a great mix of people, skills and interests.  And, they are friendly and always available to offer advice if you want it.

  2. I needed to find a new hobby.  I have always been a runner and cycled everywhere.  Even managed a Triathlon once or twice… however my body is getting older and it does not move as fast as it used to.

  3. I wanted to help my daughter who has her own photography business – Alexandra Johnson Photography – check it out.

    a.    Alex does some great photography of sporting events (working with the FA, disabilities football, WFA and EPFA), weddings and social / family gatherings.  However, she has never been interested in drone photo or video footage.  Could I fly the drone and capture the images?  Is drone aerial footage of value to her and/or clients?
    b.    Also as you get older and the kids start to find their way in life – there is a potential to drift apart – it’s just the way it is.  Well I don’t want that to happen, so could this new hobby help build and bond our relationship?

  4. My daughter is getting married in the summer of 2020 to Krysia.  Wouldn’t drone footage be cool?  After all, the wedding is taking place in a big field, with a marquee, “Tepee’s” and fun outdoor activities to keep the adults occupied – I mean for the children to be kept occupied.

  5. What about the future?  What would happen if job redundancies came along – again???  What would I do?  No-one wants to employ “older” people – right?
    Can’t always keep up with the technology of data networks and telephony.
    Working away from home is not desirable and to project manage another major move or technology deployment – well that’s just stress.
    So what could I do with my cranky old body?  Hmm?  Drones maybe?  They seem simple enough?  Perhaps I could earn a living at it?

  6. I have been lucky to have and have been fortunate to have had some great hobbies (well in my mind anyway) ranging from coaching football, SCUBA diving, sailing, powerboats – even got my own paddleboard now (as I will never have enough money to own a boat unless the Lotto ticket comes in).
    So what have these hobbies all got in common? 
    Doing it right.  First and foremost have fun (otherwise it’s not worth doing), but it’s about doing it right and above all - safely.
    a.    Coaching football – lucky enough to earn my coaching badges – doing it right.  Plan coaching sessions and then coach them.  What went well, what didn’t, what could be improved next time?  More importantly coaching children has to be safe.  What are the risks and how do we make sure the children are safe?
    b.    SCUBA diving.  “Jump in - have a swim – get out” …… was the way SCUBA diving was once described to me by a very good friend and incidentally one of the best divers I have ever met.  Hope you are fit and well Ann?
    c.    Jump in - have a swim – get out ???? Well, in diving terms - Plan the dive and dive the plan.  You don’t get too many second chances under 20m of water.  If you swim/dive in the sea, then the “tide” tends to play a big part.
    Can you get into and out for the water safely?  With the wind and tide, you might not find you come out where you expected or in the most extreme of cases - not at all! 
    SCUBA diving in the sea was great fun, so much so I found it more interesting reading and planning the journey and travelling in the boats or RIBs which took you to the dive site – rather than getting wet.  So that’s where the love affair with boats came from.
    d.    Sailboats and Powerboats, qualified to RYA Day Skipper, RYA Yachtmaster (shore based), VHF Radio – I sound like a stuck record now.  Mr Safe or Mr Cautious?  Again planning, planning and planning.  There’s a phrase, planning takes 80% of the time, whilst the activity itself is about 20%. (Pareto rule – check me out for the Jargon!)
    Air, kit, charts, depth of water, tides etc.  The list goes on, but again, get it wrong and the outcomes are not always good.  Manage the risks.
    e.    Finally, there’s a chap – Alex Thompson of Alex Thompson Racing.  Never met him, but he sure has a great boat.  He uses drone technology “big time” to get some of the most amazing shots, stunts, crazy footage… worth a look on You Tube.

Alex's boat

So in summary why would drones be of interest to me?

Have fun, meet new interesting people, can I help my daughter?  I want (selfishly some great wedding shots) and maybe, just maybe, I might find a way to earn some money.  As an early adopter of the technology, by getting in place the right certifications now, will I be able to exploit any potential benefits the industry can bring?

So, Mr Cautious started to develop a plan.  We like a plan, you can always change a plan*.

Having made my mind up that I was going to “go for it”, what did the plan look like and with the wedding schedule for this summer 2020 (the deadline) what were the steps…

*We like a plan, you can always change a plan!
(Quotation by Andrew Tidd (2001)

We like a plan, you can always change a plan.

So my plan looks like…
A graph using drones to represent Richard's progress through the whole process leading up to getting his PfCO 

Money as always is very important, what was this new adventure going to cost?  Could I really afford this new hobby?
Hmm, let’s buy a book.  So in September 2019 my first drone purchase was Drones for Dummies.  This whet my appetite and I thought yep – I am gonna like this! 

So where can I fly?  Apparently – nowhere!!!!!

I then started to look at “clubs” in the area and came across Chris Smith at the Leicester Drone Club.  I explained to Chris my plan and he invited me to come along to the Leicester Drone Club at the Gate Hangs Well pub in Syston – Leicester.

As I recall, I did not fly on my first visit to the Leicester Drone Club, however I was amazed at the friendly bunch of people/pilots, what they did for a living, and my god! How they could make the drones fly. 

When I was talking to some of the members, they were off to do work for “National Geographic” in places I had never heard of – or could have even imagined.  Remember at the start of this I said you are only limited by your imagination.


Chris mentioned that the Leicester Drone Club has a good working arrangement with DronePartners and a discount was available if you booked a PfCO through the Leicester Drone Club.  Who are DronePartners?  Time to visit their website me thinks! 

Personally, I think this was a smart move.  If you start something with little knowledge, there is a potential to develop bad habits very early and these take a long time to fix.  The DronePartners website was great AND they provided free downloads of the PfCO Operations Manual and planning templates (which you would need to complete for a PfCO).  So day 1 – even before I had a drone in my hands I was starting to get my head around the world of drones - the planning and the risks.  Whether you fly for fun or commercial gain – it's about doing it right.  Leicester Drone Club and DronePartners – were a great start.
I use the templates to plan my “fun” Sunday sessions, what was I trying to achieve and how well did I get on?

So October 2019.  Time to start purchasing the kit.

What sort of drone was I interested in and what did I want it to do?  What was the cost of the drone and all of the other equipment I would need?

Was a second hand drone an option?  Could I buy cheap and then sell this on once I was proficient?

Having spent time investigating, I settled on the Mavic 2 Pro as the best I could afford.

October and early November quickly came and went:

  • Orders were placed for the safety equipment – cones, markers, fire extinguishers etc
  • Obtained a copy of the CAP 1775 – Drone Registration Scheme: Charge Proposal Consultation Document
  • Purchase Mavic 2 Pro ☺
  • Drone Cover Club – 3rd party insurance liability
  • Registrations with Dronesafe, Obtained Flyer ID, Operator ID
  • Bought a book entitled “Drone photography and Video Master Class”.  This book contained examples of the aerial shots I want for my daughter’s wedding… plagiarism is the greatest form of flattery.

Operational area equipment

And then… 10/11/2019 Take off - First Flight at Leicester Drone Club

OMG! How crazy and ridiculous was this?  £1½k of equipment in the hands of a complete and utter novice.  Best not even to take off.  I cannot explain the fear and pressure I was under.  I cannot explain the elation when I eventually landed the drone.  I thought the old Sega Mega drive handset was complicated and here I was with the Mavic 2 Pro controller in my hands. sacré bleu!!!!!!

Chris guided me through a number of exercises and I took some videos / footage of the pub and the river. 

“Return to Home – what a great feature”. 

In depth guide to the return to home feature

Mavic 2 Pro has 3 modes – Tripod, Sports and Positional.  I had one mode - “panic mode” ☺ Not really.  So, roughly 20 minutes went by in a flash.

Over the coming weeks I spent every Sunday at the club, chatting to the other members, what were they flying, why do they fly, hints, tips, what was good/bad, difficult?  A great way to spend those lazy autumn Sunday afternoons.

Flights continued until early December 2019.  I even met Lisa – very quiet lady but the most photographed and videoed member of the club. 

The Leicester Drone club shut for the winter and we agreed to meet up again in the new-year.  Chris arranged a Christmas Meal at the Gates Hangs Well pub.  This would have been a great social event.  Unfortunately, due to family issues my wife and I had to cancel.  However, I believe they had a great time without us …cheers everyone… The club closed and we had lousy weather until March 2020!  December 2019 through to March 2020 seemed to drag on.  No flying.

Got to fly - A meeting with the Local Farmer

I approached a local farmer (during Christmas week) who agreed initially I could fly on his land, I completed a full risk assessment, took photos of the area and stated the flying manoeuvre I would be making.  I was then told I could not fly in the field as the farm was listed in the “Doomsday book” and the land was a Scheduled Monument.

Apparently the land can only be used by cows for grazing and a tractor was allowed for mowing.  Not sure what people thought I was going to do with a drone?

It's amazing what you find out about the places where you live.  Undeterred, I ploughed on (tractor pun).  In December 2019:

  • Purchased “CAA England East Chart” – to understand the charts and symbols used in preparation for the PfCO Ground school
  • Started the Operations Manual.  5 drafts later (01/04/2020) this is now being reviewed with DronePartners awaiting feedback.

January 2020
January was all about booking the PfCO with DronePartners and research:

  • Booked DronePartners 2 day ground school,
  • What are NOTAMS – Notice To Airmen,
  • What is the Airprox Report Form - CA1094,
  • EU Directive 785/2004 “insurance requirements for air carriers and aircraft operators”,
  • CAP 382 – Guidance on Mandatory Occurrence Reports,
  • CAP 393 – The Air Navigation Order 2016 and Regulations,
  • CAP 722 – Unmanned Aircraft Systems Operations – UK Airspace,
  • CAP 1763 – Air Navigation Order 2018/2019 + Amendments (Guidance for SUA Users),
  • Internet search - Papers on METARS and TAFS (Meteorological Aerodrome Reports & Terminal Aerodrome Forecast),
  • DronePartners “Pilot Competency Assessment Reference Handbook” &
  • DronePartners “Straight Forward Drone Manoeuvres”,

Sounds like a lot of stuff and there is, but overall it’s not too bad once you get used to jargon and acronyms.  And then…

24/02/2020 DronePartners PfCO Ground School and Examination – Quorn Leicestershire

The ground course was excellent, great instructor Andrew Griffiths from Droneflight (DronePartners are the training arm of Droneflight)
There were 8 people on the course.  It was great to meet other flyers outside of the flying club. The people on the course were from the Government, Fisheries, Surveyors, Agriculture – real people with real jobs and applications for the drone industry.  Crop spraying and monitoring illegal fishing – hello??

The interaction was fantastic and I think this is definitely the best way to learn. I am sure there are more cost effective courses on the market and different ways of learning, however this worked for me.  If the PfCO was completed online, you would not get the interaction.  (In my opinion - of course).  The money was well spent and fortunately I passed the exam… however, one thing started to niggle me. 

Take off and landing plan

People on the course kept talking about GVC? A2 C of C?  What had I missed?  What did this mean?  Why did people keep talking about the 1st July 2020?  Was my plan strategically floored? 

Anyway, not to worry now, I needed to complete the flight test and manual submission.

For the PfCO, there is a requirement that you have completed 2 hours of flying in the previous 3 months.  Given that I had not flown the drone for 2-3 months, there was a need to get the flying in quickly!  I purchased extra intelligent batteries for the Mavic 2.

Talking with DronePartners we were looking to take the flight assessment during late April 2020.  This would give time to complete the flight test and the Operations Manual.  More importantly with a “fair wind” the PfCO would be complete for the big wedding day. 

Like the plan and we don’t need to change the plan – well not at this point.

And then

14/03/2020    First flight of the year with Leicester Drone Club.  Managed about six flights.
22/03/2020    Last flight due to the restrictions put into place due to COVID-19
(I don’t want to get into the COVID-19 story here.  I hope it’s over soon and that everyone is safe.  I am sorry for anyone who has been poorly and also those who may have lost loved ones.  My thoughts are with you
Going back to my plan – because I have my daughter’s wedding to film.
What did COVID-19 mean to my flying practice and more importantly my flight test? – The wedding day is getting closer.

I emailed DronePartners. 

They advised that the CAA have confirmed that students who have started their training prior to 1/5/2020 can, in effect, delay their application for a permission until 1/9/2020.  However, your OPS manual; will have to include elements that relate to the new EU regulations and you have “completed an element of training on the new regulations”.  We will provide this “element of training on the new regulations” at no further cost to you (probably over zoom). 
In some ways if a positive has come out of this whole COVID-19 situation.  This has bought me much needed time to investigate the changes within our industry, what it means to us – as flyers, Operators and the PfCO.  The changes to the manufacturers and when the new legislation comes in.  Time to understand GVC and A2 C of C.

1/4/2020    Download EU 2019/945 Paper on new the EU regulations for UAS “on unmanned aircraft systems and on third-country operators of unmanned aircraft systems” effective 1st July 2020

1/4/2020    Download EU 2019/947Paper on the new EU regulations for “the rules and procedures for the operation of unmanned aircraft” effective 1st July 2020

4/4/2020    Completed various internet searches and viewed clips from You Tube to help in the understanding of the new regulations – GVC (General Visual Line of Sight Certificate) and A1/A2/A3 subcategories

Where am I today?
•    I am up to date with the changes in legislation and what this means going forward.
•    I am aware of the transitional changes which are to take place
•    I need to understand (from DronePartners) the impact for the completion of my PfCO which will ultimately become a GVC.

With COVID-19, my daughter’s wedding has been postponed until 2021.   The pressure is now off. 
I hope everyone comes out of this whole situation safe and well.

In the meantime, I am awaiting DronePartners to come back with the plan. 

We like a plan, you can always change a plan………… and the plan will be changing shortly.
Fly safely and Imagine by Reach for the Sky!

Richard pointing over yonder

Don't forget to check out Richard's daughter's website!
Alexandra Johnson Photography

Posted by Richard Johnson

6 Comments To "My Drone Journey - From Beginner to PfCO by Richard Johnson"

John Langley On 15.04.2020
Hi Richard Sounds expensive but sounds alot of fun also keep up the good work so you can be ready for Alex's wedding thanks for the distraction John Reply to this comment
Andy Tidd On 15.04.2020
Like you say Richard - we like a plan, you can always change a plan ! Reply to this comment
Robert Hodgson On 15.04.2020
I’m looking to do something like that once we are back to normality, we live in matlock and would love to join a local drone flying club. Which will be my next internet search but so looking forward to following your progress till you get your certification. Thank you for a very informative read and very useful information stay safe and I’m looking forward to more from the blog Reply to this comment
Jonathan Butler On 15.04.2020
Hi Richard amazing story and one I have been trying to convince myself to follow would love to talk to you more direct about your journey Reply to this comment
Richard Johnson On 10.08.2020
Hi Jonathan, not sure if my response was posted (or not). Drop me your email or phone number. I will contact you. Alternatively, you can reach me through Chris at the club. Regards for now, R
Richard Johnson On 10.08.2020
Hi Jonathan, More than happy to talk, do you have a phone number or email details, happy to chat. Alternatively, you can always speak with Chris at Leicester Drone Club. Hopefully my experience will be of use. Sorry I have taken so long to reply, I have been a little tied up with the whole Covid-19 thing. Stay safe and hopefully speak soon. R
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