On the way home from our recent trip to the 2018 Drone U Fly-in in Albequerque, NM, Marni and I decided to detour off the construction on I-40 past Flagstaff, and check out Sedona, AZ. It has long been on my bucket list to take her there. During my flight training for my commercial ticket, I often chose Sedona (SEZ) as my destination for my long cross-country flights and I consider it in my top three of most beautiful airports to visit. In the past few years, Sedona has been ill regarded in the UAV community as being restrictive, over-reaching in it’s authority to control its airspace, and misleading the public as to what is legal and what is not with regard to operating UAV’s around its airport and community. I am sure that by now many of us in the UAS community are all familiar with this sign.
In a spark of “inspiration”, I decided to approach the current airport manager about this sign, flying UAV’s in the area in general, and specifically about taking off in the parking lot to get some epic shots of the terminal, businesses, and aircraft with the beautiful Sedona landscape in the background. This is a recap of that conversation.
After entering the terminal building, I sought out the Manager’s office. It was Monday at 4:30 or so, so I was pretty sure I would find her, and I did. She was on the phone so I politely waited for a bit and then poked my head in to ask her if I could speak with her when she was done. She politely waived me in and paused her phone call, so I said, “Hello. My name is Mark Schaefer. I am Part 61 and 107 Pilot. You have a beautiful airport here and I would like to grab some shots with my drone. I wanted to let you know I was here and if there is anything in particular that I should be aware of.”
“I cannot authorize you to do that.” While in my head I agreed, she cannot authorize me to fly here, I wanted to get a bit more info on what her reasons were. I told her, “No problem. I would like to speak with you when you are done with your call. I’ll be waiting out here in the terminal.” So I waited, took some pictures, and struck up a conversation with another pilot and business owner in the terminal.
During our talk, he had mentioned that the airport has a unique problem partially due to the public access to trails that surround the airport and the terrain around the airport itself. People hike the trails to see the scenery, and they should. The problem comes in when they just launch their drone from the trail without reporting that they are there; manned pilots can’t see them. He also informed me that an airport board member had a prop strike on final awhile back in his Bonanza. He remembers it vividly because the drone pilot was insistent that the Bonanza pilot replace the drone (insert hand to forehead emoji here). I asked him what he thought could be done to make the airspace more safe for all pilots. “I think that if drone pilots need more education on how to talk and listen on the radio. If they reported where they were it would be easier to avoid them.”
Here is a link to the only prop strike story I could find for Sedona: http://www.fox10phoenix.com/news/arizona-news/sedona-airport-warns-drone-pilots-to-stay-away-after-alleged-collision-with-private-plane
Deborah Abingdon is the new General Manager at SEZ. When she completed her phone call I found her waiting to speak with me in the terminal. I explained who I was again as a recap, and what I wanted to do, and received the same reply that she could not authorize it. I gently pushed back. In a nice way, informed her that I know that this is a class G airport and airspace and she did not have the authority to tell me yes or no. “I cannot authorize it in good conscious. We do have a map of where you can fly though.” Off to her office we went to get a copy of the map.
Here is a link to it. http://sedonaairport.org/wp-content/uploads/No-Drone-Zone-Map.pdf
This looks exactly like the US Forestry map, linked here: https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/coconino/learning/safety-ethics/?cid=fseprd530758, although the forestry map looks to have been updated to include trail head access points and trails that prohibit uas operations.
While seeking out a copy of the map, I asked her about the sign posted down the hill at the trailhead. “That sign was before my time.” I also informed her that the sign and the no-drone-zone map was causing confusion and frustration within the UAV community and that Sedona has a perception problem as being hostile to drone pilots. This was a pivot point in the conversation.
“We love our 107 pilots. They are professional and always keep us informed of where they are flying.” I have to be honest here, I was not expecting this. While the conversation we were having was never rude, curt, disrespectful, or anything even close, I did not expect to hear any accolades of UAV pilots. She went on to say that she has a drone and is excited to get it out and learn to fly it. Sure enough it was sitting there on the bookshelf in her office. At this point, I decided that I was going to write a blog about this, and told her so.
I asked her what she thought Sedona could do to upgrade their image in the UAV community and still keep the airspace safe. “We have on our website a link where drone pilots can report their flights.” They do? I did not know this. Here is the link: http://sedonaairport.org/
Why did SEZ decide to go this route with misinformation and an absolute no?
“I do not interpret the FAA’s rules.” Both the sign and the map were before her time as manager here.
Have you heard anything about remote identification? Do you think that it would help you here in Sedona?
“I just got an email about it and haven’t fully had the chance to read it. It was saying that we needed to proceed with caution though. I will have to read it more thoroughly.”
In researching for this blog post I came across many interesting things. I went in with the assumption that this was a manned airmen and airport vs. unmanned airmen problem. That was my perception from the get go. In talking with the new airport manager and a few local pilots in the terminal, I am extremely happy to have learned otherwise. Yes, they agree that (recreational pilots especially) need more education on what manned pilots are doing, where they are expected to be, and what the radio call outs actually mean, but many of them either have drones themselves or know someone who does and want to keep them flying safely too. The sky is open to all of us and we need to better understand how to interact with each other in it.
Sedona’s UAV portal is a great idea. Class G airports have no Grid maps associated with them, it is uncontrolled airspace, and although the airports phone number is available publicly, it is usually difficult to get a hold of anyone or an active or attended line.. The portal makes it easier to check in and identify where you are flying. I do have two issues with it, however, and it is summed up in one sentence in a pop-up box on their online form;
The map is incorrect in the airspace depicted as “No Drone Zone”, and the airport does not have the authority to prohibit unauthorized UAS flights.
Here is what the airspace actually looks like:
In researching where the "No Drone Zone" map came from, it appears to have been created by the Coconino National Forest, or at least has their name all over it. Since that trailhead where the sign is located (just below the approach end of 21) is under their authority, I would wager that they put it there, not the airport. Speculation, but no one at the airport knows where it came from. Someone at the Forestry service has “misread” the FAA regulations on recreational drone flights. This excerpt from their web page is repeated in several locations:
Other “information resources” for the area also misquote the regulations:
https://visitsedona.com/trip-planning/recreational-drone-tips/ which led to this link https://3dinsider.com/drone-safety/ which states that flying within 5 miles of an airport requires permission from ATC.
This is simply untrue. The FAA has further clarified the “five mile rule” for recreational uav pilots in their UAS\FAQ section on their website:
So the rule is, you have to INFORM the airport operator of a uas flight. Whether you fly or not is up to you and all of the responsibility of any outcome is yours as well. What does that mean? To me it means that if you really want to fly over the objections of the people who know the airport and airspace best, you better be prepared to do it with absolute perfection and zero endangerment or perceived endangerment to other pilots and people on the ground. If something goes wrong; a pilot gets spooked and diverts, you get reported as a danger to the airspace, the gas truck guy thinks your flying toward or over him, the cops are called, it’s your fault, and it’s your fault with prejudice.
Why WE CHOSE not to fly at the Sedona Airport today
There were several factors that went into my decision not to fly on this day at the Sedona Airport.
The temp outside was 105. That is over the manufacturer's recommended operating temperature for my aircraft (Phantom 4 Pro). It also means that the density altitude was high. Simply put there is less air for aircraft to use to keep flying, so they have to fly faster (over the ground) to compensate for it. This would give me less time to “see and avoid” them as I would be operating in an area that they were guaranteed to be in.
In my manned aircraft experience, I know that the Sedona Airport has a runway that is not perfectly level, one end is lower than the other, by alot. This causes different illusions by the pilots as to how high or low they should be on final. Combine this with the density altitude problem, and you have aircraft coming into the area I intended to fly in faster and either higher or lower than I will be expecting them too.
Helicopter tours. There were no less than 5 or 6 tour copters coming into and out of the airport during my time there...and it was a Monday. Their pattern was consistent, and altitude as well, but their flight path was literally over the top of where I planned on launching; both of the places I planned on launching actually.
At my second launch location, the trailhead where the sign is, it is difficult to see incoming aircraft. The terrain is excellent at masking aircraft as they come in until they are close enough to be over the horizon. In addition, although I knew that this day aircraft were landing on 21, it is an uncontrolled field. They could be landing or taking off in any direction they want.
It is impossible to see outbound traffic from anywhere other than on the field. Although I can hear them on the radio, not everyone is required to use a radio at an uncontrolled field. The trailhead and the trails surrounding the airport are all below the airport elevation. You can not see or hear outbound traffic until it is over you.
My VO was spent and my time allotted for this portion of the trip was running out. I told her I would be back in five minutes 20 minutes ago and it was about time for dinner. I would have been rushed. That violates the “E” in IMSAFE.
From the trailhead, I did not need to be in the air to get photos of the surrounding area. From the top of the trail, you can get a 360 degree view of the valley and the surrounding terrain. I could use a better camera on a tripod rather than the drone.
While none of these factors alone would usually be enough to ground me individually, the combination of all of them made the choice pretty clear, especially #5 with the proximity of the airfield and the fact that I could not see it at all.
I am confident that I made the right decision not to fly that day. There will be a time when I return to Sedona (hopefully soon) and I will fly then. It will be highly coordinated with the airport manager, organized, within a pre-planned area and time, I will file a Drotam, and we will get it done, because that is what pros do. That’s why they love their 107 pilots.
I would like to thank the General Manager, Deborah Abingdon for taking the time to speak with me. I wasn’t especially easy on her, but I wasn’t a jerk and I think that we had a productive conversation. It was enlightening for both parties and we look forward to working with her in the future.
Also, Thanks to Adam Deibel for taking the time to talk as well. http://www.airportrentacarofsedona.com/
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Visualize It: See FAA UAS Data on a Map
SEZ drone portal to assist in notifying the airport of intent to fly:
AOPA’s best practices for flying your drone near an airport:
FAA Drone Zone