FAA Wings program for drone pilots

The FAA Wings program has been around for a long time, helping airmen improve their flying skills. The FAA Safety Team (FAAST) also offers free courses that benefit drone operators – an excellent resource for public safety professionals and others to learn further. There are classes that are specifically geared towards drones – and classes that benefit aviators of all kinds.

The following is part of a bi-weekly series on drone public safety issues by Steve Rhode, chief pilot of the Wake Forest Fire Department and the North Carolina Public Safety Drone Academy and founder of Public Safety Flight, a website that provides information on how to use drones unmanned Aircraft systems (UAS), UAVs, planes and drones in public safety.

Become a better flier

Sitting in the front of a dark, wet, and chaotic incident scene is not where you want to start becoming a better pilot.

In my continued effort to bring all new public safety drone pilots under one wing for friendly, honest advice, I can’t help but remain stuck on whether some new UAS pilots are “random fliers” .

I’ve been a manned airplane pilot since 1988, but that doesn’t make me a better pilot than those who have fallen into flying drones for firefighters and law enforcement in recent years. This background gives me a different frame of reference and a completely different educational path than the new “random flyers” of today’s drones.

An “accidental flyer” is a pilot who has never had much interest in playing in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) sandbox, but who loves drones and steps in immediately. The reality is that, as a drone pilot, you are as much a pilot in the eyes of the FAA as I am or any other manned airplane pilot: your ready made is not a toy, and it is an airplane.

As a pilot, you expect to always learn, study, and improve your knowledge. We all find a way that works best. For me, I take online courses and monthly scenario-based training to try and stay sharp. There are my required inspection drives on the plane to maintain my ratings. I assume that drone pilots will also need to take practical flight exams in order to maintain their pilot rating in the future – training and maintaining ratings will only be more difficult, not easier.

Start now with the FAASTeam

On a recent public safety drone flight podcast, I spoke to AOPA’s Jim Moore, who heads AOPA’s drone division. We talked about pilot training.

That reminded me of one of the places I’ve turned for years to take aeronautical classes. Most classes are free; They lead to a certificate of completion to show to your boss. and they earn you FAA Wings Credits, which are becoming increasingly important for drone pilots.

I’ve always referred to it as the FAA Wings program, but technically it’s the FAA Safety Team or the FAASTeam website where you can sign up for a free account to start taking courses. As you take more online courses, you’ll earn skills and credits that show that you are an active learner. You can even earn flying wings.

To search for classes, go to Activities> type your keyword in the search box and select WINGS and AMT: then click Search. If you enter drone as a keyword, credit classes such as “Commercial drone pilot: CFR Part 107 Explained” or “Droning On: Safe and successful operation of unmanned aerial systems” will be displayed. These classes are targeted, but the ones I think provide critical training for drone pilots are “Crew Resource Management: How To Do It Right,” “Aeronautical Decision Making For VFR Pilots,” and “Risk Management and the Traffic Pattern “as a start. As a pilot, you can credit any online class. (A word of caution – or maybe just be patient – navigating the Wings website can be a bit of a chore. It’s better now than it was before, but there is always room for improvement. Don’t let search for classes discourage you once you get yourself up registered and can get access.)

Help in the event of an accident, do not cause one

I got tremendous benefit from the Wings credits in the AOPA Accident Case Studies series. While many of them are manned aircraft, they all offer fantastic insight into the knowledge gained and how to avoid the difficulties of flying. One class in particular is so good at drone pilots flying under a COA that I observe them at least once a year. This case study focuses on a public aircraft operation such as a COA drone flight.

This learning experience in the accident study is directly related to our drone flight operations. It includes pressure from command, a desire to complete the mission, and incorrect decisions. Even if you don’t want to get free FAA Wings credits for taking the course, you can watch Rescue Gone Wrong (video below) and think about what you can learn from the Mission Mindset incident.

A good pilot always learns.

Steve Rhode is an FAA Certified Commercial and Instrument Certified Airplane Pilot, an Experienced Part 107 UAS Commercial Pilot, and Chief Pilot of the Wake Forest Fire Department and the North Carolina Public Safety Drone Academy. He advises drone pilots through the Homeland Security Information Network and as a drone expert on the FAA Safety Team. Steve is the founder of Public Safety Flight, a website that contains news, honest information, tips, and stories about unmanned aerial vehicle systems (UAS), UAVs, aircraft, and drones in fire departments and other public safety niches. Sign up for the Public Safety Flight newsletter to add to Steve’s private email list or contact Steve here. On the plane, his FAA callsign is Fire Demon 1: and Firebird 1 with the drone.

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