A Generation of ‘Flying Fools’

When Americans think of hijacking these days, one date sticks in their minds — Sept. 11, 2001, the day that 19 terrorists coordinated the hijacking of four airplanes and killed nearly 3,000 people. But there was a time in aviation history when “skyjackings” were so common that they were a topic of great concern at the FAA.

Stretching from the early 1960s into the mid-1970s, this “golden age of hijacking” featured the hostile takeover of more than 150 aircraft. The outbreak of lawlessness in the air led to new laws, regulations, executive orders and treaties. In addition to experts inside the FAA, pilots, aircraft designers, law enforcers and others brainstormed ways to address the threat domestically, and the International Civil Aviation Organization played a key role globally.

A scene from 9/11 as captured by an FAA employee

“Hijacking — or what to do about hijacking — confronts the government of the United States with serious challenges that require the harnessing of its technological, political and legal skills,” State Department official Frank Loy said in 1969.

The FAA deployed “peace officers” on select flights. It tested a system that combined behavioral profiling of passengers with technological screening and occasional interviews by U.S. marshals. And by the mid-1970s, the foundation of today’s passenger- and baggage-screening system had been laid in airports across the country.

The Cuban connection
It didn’t take long after the first successful flight of a powered airplane for the new technology to become a target of criminality. As noted in the 2017 book Violence in the Skies: A History of Aircraft Hijacking and Bombing, the first known theft of a plane was in 1911, followed by another incident in 1917 that ended with the two scofflaws dying in a crash.

While the earliest unverified accounts of skyjacking date back to 1919 in Hungary and 1929 in Mexico, the incident officially recognized as the first occurred Feb. 21, 1931, in Peru. A rebellion led by Lt. Col. Luis Miguel Sanchez Cerro was the impetus for that crime. Some disenchanted followers of his commandeered a Pan American Airways tri-motor plane for a flight from Arequipa to Lima to drop leaflets on the city. The captive mail pilot, Capt. Byron Dague Rickards, later received a Chicago Daily News award for his daring during that rebellion.

It took another 30 years — and the rise of Fidel Castro in Cuba — for skyjacking to surface as a major concern in the United States. Several Cuban aircraft were hijacked to the United States and elsewhere before and after the Castro-led Cuban revolution, but those defections from a newly communist neighbor didn’t stir much angst in America.

Then on May 1, 1961, Antulio Ramirez Ortiz forced a National Airlines pilot to take a detour to Havana, not the United States. Three more such attempts, including the first on U.S. soil, occurred between July 24 and Aug. 9.

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Cozy Cabin By The Lake

A client of my drone company, Airscape Photography, proposed a barter deal for a private aerial shoot — photos of their family cabin near Leesville Lake in Gretna, Va., in exchange for a family weekend at the cabin. We jumped at the chance for a getaway!

In addition to pictures of the cabin, I captured colorful sunrise and sunset shots, an eerie black-and-white photo of an abandoned house and more. See the full gallery of pictures.

Want to barter for an aerial shoot at your vacation home? We’re open to your pitch! Email airscapephoto@gmail.com.

Danny The Drone Dude

Throughout childhood and into college, I pictured the adult version of myself in a whole host of careers. The ideas ranged from the predictable (doctor) and practical (electrician) to the sensible (electrical engineer) and fantastical (wildlife photographer).

One future that I never could have imagined, or that any aptitude test could have predicted, was becoming a commercial drone pilot. Yet here I am today, living that dream in my spare time while working for the federal agency that taught me how to do it safely.

The genesis of droning dreams
I joined the Federal Aviation Administration as a writer-editor in December 2012, just as the integration of unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system became a priority. Congress had addressed the issue earlier that year in a series of mandates, and the FAA published a comprehensive plan and integration roadmap in November 2013.

FAA writer Danny Glover and his son, Anthony, on the job for a client (Photo: Cedar Box Photography)

Back then, I had only a passing knowledge of drones of the military variety, like the Predator and Reaper. But as I learned about smaller unmanned aircraft systems, I started picturing myself at the remote controls. I could experience the thrill of flight without being in the air myself, a prospect that rarely appeals to me.

Periodic exposure to UAS-related issues as a writer and editor heightened my interest. I reported on the first “UAS Day” at the Air Traffic Control Association, edited some content for the “Know Before You Fly” educational campaign, interviewed an FAA lawyer about the legal landscape surrounding drones, and wrote about the Pathfinder research program.

I talked about drones at home often enough that my wife and children heard the not-so-subtle message. They bought me one for my birthday. That’s when this 1980s child of one-joystick Atari games realized I wasn’t technologically adept enough to operate modern electronic toys.

I bounced that drone off every wall and piece of furniture in our house, testing the limits of the flexible plastic construction and propeller guards. Our teenage son, Anthony, was a natural at the controls — but when I let him fly the drone outside, he promptly rebelled against my orders to stay low and away from trees. He snagged the drone on a limb 25 feet in the air.

The whole family, and probably some amused neighbors, watched as an irritated and frantic father tried mightily to rescue his new toy. I tied a small rock to a long stretch of string and repeatedly heaved it into the air until it finally sailed over the limb. A few firm, downward yanks of the string freed the drone but not the rock. It dangled 15 feet above the ground for months, prompting the occasional curious question from visitors to our house. Read the full post »

Surrounded By Sprawl

There aren’t many working family farms left in Prince William County, and the Virginia Department of Transportation once tried to seize Cedars Farm to build a commuter parking lot. That idea failed in 2015, so I had the opportunity to capture this photo for an Airscape Photography client.

I did the work as a retirement gift for someone at the Prince William Soil and Water Conservation District. Her husband’s parents bought the 125-acre farm in 1936. See more views of the property here.

A Honey Of A Tale About Bees And The FAA

Actress Amanda Barker (right) played an FAA official on “Designated Survivor.” In her scene, she meets with the White House officials played by Kal Penn (left) and Paulo Costanzo to discuss “the bee guy.” (Screenshot: ABC)

Originally published on the FAA’s internal website and at Medium
By K. Daniel Glover

Forget that fantastical story line on ABC’s “Designated Survivor.” Bee buffs and aviation radar experts agree — electromagnetic waves can’t kill entire colonies of honeybees.

Hollywood’s creative minds wrote that theory into the Dec. 6 episode of the conspiratorial, Washington-based drama. The show’s writers debunked the idea by the end of the episode, but considering the lighthearted plot featured an FAA character, FocusFAA decided to make a few calls — to a radar specialist, a bee scientist and two actors in the episode, among others.

They all chuckled at the idea of aircraft surveillance radar disorienting honeybees to the point of starvation. “Unless [the hives] are by some gigantic radar facility sitting across the fence, I wouldn’t worry about it,” said Jerry Bromenshenk, a research scientist who heads the Online Beekeeping Certificate Program at the University of Montana.

The FAA as insect antagonist
For those unfamiliar with the show, “Designated Survivor” is based on the tradition of an official in the line of presidential succession staying at a distant location when the president is at events with other potential successors. As Hollywood’s version of the designated survivor, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Tom Kirkman (played by Kiefer Sutherland) becomes president after a terrorist attack during a presidential speech at the Capitol.

This FAA building is portrayed as the FBI in “Designated Survivor.” (Screenshot: ABC)

The FAA has had regular, albeit disguised, cameos in the show. The building portrayed as FBI headquarters actually is one of the FAA headquarters buildings — a fact that some viewers have noted on the “Designated Survivor” Facebook page. But the FAA was featured more prominently in the episode dubbed “Three-Letter Day.”

It began with President Kirkman telling members of his staff to research three issues raised in letters to the White House. One of the letters involved a beekeeper in Pennsylvania who believed a new air route surveillance radar, or ARSR, was killing his bee colonies.

“The irony is that I do not like bees,” said Phil Abrams, the actor who played the beekeeper and who still remembers his first sting from a wasp. So to identify with the character’s pain in losing the bees, Abrams imagined losing his dog. “It’s finding that personal connection with the event, not necessarily in a literal manner but how it moves you emotionally.”

He also had to buy into the character’s fringe theory. “When you play a character, you’ve got to believe in what you’re playing, even if you’re a little bit nuts,” Abrams said. “… I had a definite reason why I thought my bees were dying off, so I took action” by writing to the White House.

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The Key To UAS Integration

Originally published at Drone Book
By K. Daniel Glover

Collaboration with the drone industry, state and local governments, and the public is the key to successfully integrating drones into the national airspace system, federal officials said this week at the nation’s biggest technology trade show.

“Let’s figure out the right balances,” Deputy Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy Finch Fulton said at CES in Las Vegas, where Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration officials discussed the challenges of drone integration.

Fulton and Earl Lawrence, executive director of the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Office, participated in a discussion about drone innovation. The topics included the new UAS Integration Pilot Program and the work of the Drone Advisory Committee.

Fulton opened the discussion by explaining the Trump administration’s “revolutionary approach” in the pilot program. Initiated late last year, the program facilitates partnerships between “lead applicants” in industry and state, local and tribal governments. The partners will work with the FAA to test ideas for advanced UAS operations that currently are heavily restricted.

The city of Palo Alto, Calif., for instance, recently outlined two proposals involving the Stanford Blood Center and Palo Alto Airport. The blood center wants to work with the UAS provider Matternet to deliver blood samples on a designated flight path to and from Stanford Hospital. And the airport is eyeing a partnership with Multirotor to explore ways to integrate drones and manned aircraft while avoiding airfield conflicts.

Fulton said the pilot program is designed to identify “reasonable time, place and manner restrictions” on drone operations. As an example, he said research through the program could reveal that the best way to integrate drone deliveries is to conduct the operations at night.

“Instead of just imposing rules and figuring out ways to say no,” Fulton said, “we come to the public and try to figure out ways that we can say yes and to enable this innovation.”

Lawrence said the pilot program is essential in a world where aircraft are more personal in nature, sometimes flying from people’s palms, but operate in a complex airspace system that evolved over time. The program will pull together experts who know how to achieve safety in their particular realms of expertise in order to develop a “safety culture” for drones.

“We’re having to relearn how we did that almost a hundred years ago now and fit it into the processes,” Lawrence said.

The Drone Advisory Committee is part of that collaborative effort, too. The DAC membership includes representatives from the drone industry, local government, academia and other aviation interests. “It’s our opportunity to reach out and get a good cross-section of individuals who are affected by this new technology,” Lawrence said.

A drone pilot who was part of the panel discussion praised the FAA for successfully integrating drones into the national airspace during last year’s hurricanes in Florida, Texas and the Caribbean. Taylor Mitcham, the “chief drone ninja” at Florida-based SkyNinja, was among the pilots who received emergency FAA authorizations to fly in disaster-stricken areas.

“The FAA had a great response,” she said. “A lot of times we got instant airspace authorizations in a lot of areas that were very critical, especially with our cell-tower inspections that we were doing out in the Florida Keys.”

Lawrence made clear that the FAA is eager to safely achieve that kind of integration on a broader scale by engaging with industry. “We all want to serve the community. We all see the benefit,” he said. “We’re learning together.”

NTSB: Drone Pilot Caused Crash

Originally published at Drone Book
By K. Daniel Glover

A drone pilot crashed his Phantom 4 small unmanned aircraft system into a U.S. Army helicopter in September because he was flying it out of his line of sight, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded today.

The drone pilot was a hobbyist, not a commercial operator who had passed an airman’s knowledge test to be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. The accident occurred 2.5 miles from where he was operating the controls.

The Army pilot, whose Black Hawk helicopter was part of a presidential movement to New York for a United Nations meeting, saw the drone and tried to avoid it but didn’t have enough time.

In addition to flying beyond line of sight, the drone pilot was operating during official night conditions, in an area regularly used by helicopters and in restricted airspace. This demonstrated a “lack of understanding of the potential hazard of collision with other aircraft,” the NTSB report said.

NTSB illustration of the crash scene

NTSB illustration of the crash scene

The agency also criticized the drone pilot’s use of a mobile application with limited capability for alerting pilots to temporary flight restrictions. “Sole reliance on advisory functions of a non-certified app is not sufficient to ensure that correct airspace information is obtained,” the report said. The pilot also did not have Internet access on his mobile device to check for TFRs before the flight.

The operator didn’t know he had crashed until the agency contacted him. “The sUAS pilot reported that he lost signal with the aircraft and assumed it would return home as programmed,” the NTSB said. “After waiting about 30 minutes, he assumed it had experienced a malfunction and crashed in the water.”

The pilot purchased another drone five days after the accident.

Pumpkin Air Patrol

If you live within driving distance of Winchester, Va., and haven’t taken a detour onto Route 522, you’ve been missing one of the best roadside markets in the Old Dominion. The Virginia Farm Market is in its fourth generation of business there.

Every fall, the property famous for its red building with a giant apple on top gets even more colorful as the seasonal pumpkins arrive. This year I had the pleasure of capturing the annual scene from above for the market, the first client of my new company, Airscape Photography.

See more aerial views of the property here.

Drone Journalism After A Disaster

Originally published at Drone Book
By K. Daniel Glover

When disaster strikes these days, it doesn’t take long for drone pilots to document the damage from the air – and for people to start talking about the imagery.

The reactions tend to fall into one of two camps. Those who appreciate the aerial perspectives of nature’s fury celebrate the technology that delivers it. But more cynical viewers (usually other drone pilots) see the footage as evidence of bad behavior.

The pessimists have a point. Drone operations are heavily restricted in disaster zones because of the prevalence of emergency responders flying manned aircraft at low altitudes, and some drone pilots do break the rules. Just this week police arrested a California man for flying his drone near an airport frequented by aircraft fighting wildfires in the state.

But people shouldn’t rush to the judgment that every aerial disaster photo or video was obtained illegally. That attitude undermines the quality visual journalism being produced by conscientious drone pilots, like Josh Haner for The New York Times.

Haner, who last year used his drone skills to help illustrate the “Carbon’s Casualties” series on climate change, was in Santa Rosa, Calif., last week to film the aftermath of deadly wildfires. His footage brings the fire’s impact to life from the sky – and it was all shot legally.

“Exercising the most caution around breaking news is something I’m very passionate about,” Haner told Drone Book. “I think as a journalistic community we need to think about when we fly and make ethical decisions that err on the side of caution.”

Haner shot the footage in two locations outside the range of temporary flight restrictions imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration, a fact that he confirmed beforehand by calling 1-800-WXBrief. He also showed his remote pilot’s certificate to police at the nearest road block, and they told him where he could fly without being over an active fire.

No flight restrictions were implemented in the area of the footage for about 24 hours after the fire started, but Haner and his editors decided against flying over active fires.

“Just because we can fly in areas before TFRs go into effect doesn’t mean we should,” he said. “In this situation we postponed our flights until we felt comfortable there were no fire or rescue flights in the area even though there were no TFRs in effect for a very long time.”

The first TFR took effect as Haner transmitted his footage to the newspaper. “I was glad that I’d already finished as I don’t like going anywhere near TFRs,” he said. “It’s just not worth it.”

Another video in Santa Rosa shot by drone pilot Douglas Thron gained traction online. It featured a U.S. Postal Service truck driving through a neighborhood destroyed by fire.

“It was a trippy thing — he was actually delivering the mail,” said Thron, who was on assignment for NBC’s “Today.” “I was shocked to see him because most of the roads were blocked off, but he obviously had access.”

Thron appears to have flown his drone before a TFR was implemented for the area.

The Los Angeles Times also published aerial imagery of the wildfire’s damage, and its approach to getting the story is worth noting. “No drone was used,” Marcus Yam said in an email. “I flew in a helicopter for those aerial surveys.”

The point is that it’s possible for journalists to obey the law and capture newsworthy aerial footage in disaster areas. Dozens of journalists are, like Haner, certified to fly drones themselves; news outlets can contract the work to highly experienced drone pilots like Thron; or they can go the old-fashioned but costlier route of hiring helicopter pilots.

So the next time you see powerful aerial footage of a disaster scene, resist the urge to jump to any unwarranted conclusions about how it was obtained. Just appreciate the moment.

The Tragic Tale Of Thomas Selfridge

Originally published on the FAA’s internal website and at Medium
By K. Daniel Glover

Thomas Selfridge (left) with Alexander Graham Bell, who recruited the military aviator for his Aerial Experiment Association that was competing with the Wright Brothers to be the first in flight (Photo: Air National Guard)

Most pioneer aviators are known for their famous flights, but one of them is best remembered for a fatal flight. Thomas Selfridge became the first person to die in a motorized aircraft accident 109 years ago this September. He was 26 years old.

The tragedy occurred at a key point in aviation history, as the U.S. Army considered a contract to buy airplanes from the Wright brothers. Orville Wright was at the controls of the Wright Flyer that day, nearly five years after he and his brother, Wilbur, made history with flights at Kitty Hawk, N.C. Selfridge, an Army lieutenant with an aviation background, was his passenger — a concession that Orville Wright made reluctantly to try to win the contract.

The two were in the air above Fort Myer, Va., for just a few minutes when a propeller malfunction triggered a chain of events that sent the aircraft plummeting to the ground. Wright survived the accident with severe injuries, but Selfridge never recovered from a fractured skull.

A storied history of Selfridge success
The Selfridge surname was well established in military circles before Thomas Etholen Selfridge was born in 1882. His grandfather and uncle, who shared the name Thomas O., had distinguished Navy careers. Both rose to the rank of rear admiral, and the uncle led an expedition related to the Panama Canal.

Thomas E. Selfridge’s brother, Edward, also was part of an important event in U.S. history. He was part of an infantry regiment that supported future President Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders at San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War. “They were a pretty prominent family,” said Dan Heaton, who wrote a book about Thomas E. Selfridge while serving at the Air National Guard base in Michigan that bears the family name.

Selfridge (Photo: Air National Guard)

Like his grandfather and uncle, Thomas E. Selfridge excelled in the military, and he did it at a young age. He was chosen as an alternate to the U.S. Naval Academy while he was still underage, and a year later, he won an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He graduated in 1903, the year of the Wright brothers’ first motorized flights.

A native of San Francisco, Selfridge headed back home for his first assignment. He was at the Presidio during the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that devastated the City by the Bay in 1906, a tragedy that prompted a declaration of martial law. As a young lieutenant, he did such a remarkable job during search-and-rescue and cleanup operations that the Army gave him the choice of his next assignment. He opted to teach at West Point for a year and think about it.

While Selfridge was at the academy, Heaton said he wrote a letter to ask the Wright brothers if he could help in their workshop. But they didn’t want someone from the federal government watching them work on an innovative machine the government might want to buy.

Rebuffed by the Wright Brothers, Selfridge instead went to work for Alexander Graham Bell, who turned his attention to aviation and other interests after inventing the telephone. At Bell’s request, President Roosevelt assigned Selfridge to the Aeronautical Division of the U.S. Signal Corps in 1907. The corps assigned him to the Bell-funded Aerial Experiment Association for a year of research into an aircraft meant to compete with the Wright brothers’ work. Selfridge eventually piloted — and crashed into the water — an unpowered, tetrahedral kite called Cygnet.
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