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From The Editor: Fire! Donald Trump!

With aging comes memory loss. So goes the conventional wisdom, anyway. Maybe it’s a matter of semantics, though; it’s not that we can’t remember things, it’s that we can’t remember things we want to recall at a given moment. While I might have trouble with the name of the singer of a 1950s song I like, I certainly remember events in my life from that era. Selective amnesia.

One of the things I remember is flying model airplanes in the 1950s. They were much less technical than today’s radio-controlled planes; we set the controls, fired up the engine and let the plane go, hopefully to circle the field and come in for a gentle (Ha!) landing when the fuel ran out. That memory came to me the other day when I was reading scary stories—non-fiction, unfortunately—about near collisions of manned aircraft with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), commonly known as “camera drones.”

According to the CNN report, “Two airplanes flying near one of the nation’s busiest airports each came within 100 feet of a drone on Friday, according to audio from each flight’s radio calls. The first reported spotting a drone while approaching John F. Kennedy International Airport. The drone passed just below the plane’s nose when the jet was flying at an altitude of about 800 to 900 feet. [Later the same day] Delta Flight 407—which had 154 people on board—was preparing to land when the cockpit reported seeing a drone below its right wing.”

There has been a misunderstanding in the business since the FAA issued waivers to several broadcast and film companies to operate UAV camera platforms. The rules for the use of UAV have not been published as of August 2015—they are due in September—but the general rules for any radio-controlled (or free flight) activity remain: no flying within five miles of an airport without notifying the airport operator and control tower and no flights above 400 feet. But the FAA says it gets about two reports per day from pilots saying they spotted a UAV outside these parameters. More importantly, unless you have one of the waivers, you are not allowed to film using a drone for any commercial purpose, including TV broadcast.

Out here in California, it’s the fire season and with the five-year drought, it’s a horrific season. Tens of thousands of acres are burned and burning. Spectacular columns of fire are seen on TV almost every night; homes are destroyed and lives are devastated. But fire fighters from around the country are mobilized to contain and then extinguish the fires and one of the tools they depend upon is the helicopter. Equipped with a slurry tank of retardant, the choppers attack the fire from above, often saving lives and property.

And then we read reports like this: “[F]irefighters face a new foe: drones operated by enthusiasts who presumably take close-up video of the disaster. Five such ‘unmanned aircraft systems’ prevented California firefighters from dispatching helicopters with water buckets for up to 20 minutes over a wildfire that roared Friday onto a Los Angeles area freeway that leads to Las Vegas. Helicopters couldn’t drop water because five drones hovered over the blaze, creating hazards in smoky winds for a deadly midair disaster, officials said.”

Let’s hope that these idiots with airplanes are not professional cinematographers. The “rules are made to be broken” crowd will, someday, cause an accident that will take lives, all for a splash on YouTube or footage to sell to Fox News. Don’t be one of them.

Oh, why Donald Trump in the headline? Reports are that any article with his name in the title gets thousands of extra clicks. I’ll try anything to get the word out about safe, legal use of camera UAVs.

September 3, 2015