Wichita’s heavy aviation presence affects drone operators

A drone is flown by employees of Blue Chip UAS of Wichita. The company specializes in topographical survey work and 3D mapping of locations.
A drone is flown by employees of Blue Chip UAS of Wichita. The company specializes in topographical survey work and 3D mapping of locations. File photo

Wichita drone operators can share the sky with other aircraft after they register with the Federal Aviation Administration.

But the Air Capital of the World’s numerous airports and landing strips mean they’ll more than likely have to phone it in first.

Under federal guidelines, you’re supposed to avoid flying a drone within five miles of an airport unless you contact the airport directly.

Almost the entire Wichita metropolitan area falls that close to some sort of airport or heliport, private or public, according to Air Map, a resource for drone operators. Multiple areas fall within the zones of more than one airport or heliport.

‘Very dangerous area’

The rising popularity of drones has outpaced the regulations for unmanned aircraft. Several high-profile close calls between drones and commercial jets have raised civil aviation safety concerns.

The FAA now requires the registration of recreational drones that weigh between 0.55 and 55 pounds before they are flown outside.

Drone pilots must register by Feb. 19 and be able to provide that registration, either on a printout or on an electronic device, when they fly their drones.

“For reasons of safety, they have to become aware of the other aircraft in the sky,” said FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Cory.

Flight in certain airspace brings additional safety guidelines.

“Well, preferably they should stay away, because five miles within an airport is where planes are ascending and descending,” Cory said. “That’s a very dangerous area.

“(But) if they must fly, they must notify air traffic control under the current rules,” Cory said. “They would contact their local airport.”

Cory said this guideline is intended to keep drone activity at a safe distance from planes and helicopters. It’s also consistent with the FAA’s rules on the use of model airplanes, which have been around for years.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re operating close to a small landing strip or heliport or a large airport like Wichita Eisenhower National Airport, Cory says.

“Anywhere where you have an airplane coming in or a helicopter coming in and going out, you need to stay away from it,” she said.

Dozens of airports

Wichita has 15 public-use and private-use airports, according to FAA data. The surrounding cities in Sedgwick County have another 14.

Most Sedgwick County residents fall within a five-mile radius of an airstrip, public airport, private airport or heliport.

Much of southern and eastern Wichita falls in the range of three major hubs of activity: Eisenhower Airport, McConnell Air Force Base and Col. James Jabara Airport.

Few places in the county are farther than five miles from any sort of airport.

“If you take a map of the city of Wichita and drop five-mile circles around all the airports, there’s really nowhere,” said local drone operator Vernon Jones.

Not all Sedgwick County airports control their own air traffic. Drone operators are encouraged to reach out to the air traffic control towers that manage the local airspace for their own airport and other smaller runways.

“Untowered airports are controlled by air traffic control at radar facilities,” Cory said. “This means the drone operator would need to research which air traffic control facility controls that airspace.

“So the bottom line is that any flight within five miles of an airport needs to be planned and approved,” Cory added.

Wichita Air Traffic Control Tower manager Kurt Carpenter says the agency gets about three or four calls a week from hobbyists.

According to a checklist from the FAA, drone operators will be asked their name, phone number, drone registration number, location, start time of flight, flight duration, altitude and description of the drone. The information is voluntary on the part of the caller.

If the air traffic control operators feel the drone is in an unsafe area or altitude, they will deny the drone activity.

The checklist also advises air traffic controllers to only acknowledge, but not approve, the flight taking place.

Some doubts

Some in the drone industry, such as Air Map co-founder Gregory McNeal, doubt how realistic the phone-it-in process is. Air Map is a California-based company that provides airspace information for operators.

“The FAA has not been clear about when they say airport, what do they mean,” McNeal said.

Under the guidelines, operators may have to call seldom-used heliports and airports, he said.

“These are heliports that are never used,” McNeal said. “So, like, the Ritz Carlton hotel has a heliport. It has never been used and will only be used if the fire department has to evacuate people.”

McNeal says the answer he got from the hotel operator when he called was “why are you calling me?”

“It’s almost absurd that the FAA would expect that I should call the airport operator, which is a heliport operator of a hotel, and the number the FAA publishes in their official database is the number of the property manager,” McNeal said. “It’s just bureaucratic. I’m not contacting a real active heliport. There’s nobody there.”

Some local drone operators are also puzzled about what to do before they fly.

Jones is a retired aerospace worker who got a drone from his wife after he expressed interest in the budding technology.

“My wife goes, ‘You know, you need a hobby. You need something to go out and do,’ ” Jones said. “I just thought it’d be fun to play with.”

He uses it for flying with a neighbor who owns a model airplane and for photographing his southeastern Sedgwick County property from the air.

That property is about four miles from McConnell Air Force Base.

He says parts of the FAA’s process raise more questions than answers.

“Do they really want every kid that got a drone for Christmas calling their tower and going ‘Hey, I’m going to go fly my drone’?” he asked. “Do they have better things to be doing?”

Jones said some guidelines will keep tabs on drone traffic that will have no effect on civilian aviation.

“Quite honestly, a manned aircraft should never be down that low anyway unless it’s preparing to land,” he said. “You should be within a half-mile of the runway before you’re below 400 feet. If you’re out here flying over my house in a KC-135 at 400 feet, you’ve got an issue.”

Echoing facets of the debate over gun control, Jones said reckless operators may continue to skirt the law.

“Responsible owners don’t need more laws, and the irresponsible owners aren’t going to obey the laws anyway,” Jones said.

Who to call before you fly your drone

▪ If you live near Eisenhower National Airport, call 316-350-1500. After business hours, call Terminal Radar Approach Control, or TRACON, at 316-350-1520.

▪ If you live near Col. James Jabara Airport, call Airport Operations at 316-946-4710.

Source: Valerie Wise of the Wichita Aiport Authority

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