Flight Safety Checks: Everything You Should Know Before You Takeoff

On August 10 of this year, a Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS), operated by York Region Police, collided with a Cessna 172N which was on final approach to Buttonville Airport in Markham, ON. 

According to a CADORS report published by Transport Canada on August 18, the aircraft was on final approach to Runway 15 at approximately 500 feet AGL when the collision occurred which damaged the engine cowling and propeller. There were no reported injuries and the plane was able to land safely. 

NAV CANADA had not been advised of an RPAS operation within the control zone surrounding Buttonville Airport. York Regional Police have confirmed to news agencies that the drone was flown as part of an investigation near the airport.

The incident is currently under investigation by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, and we’re awaiting the results of the investigation to learn the facts.

There’s a lot to think about when planning for an operation. You’ve likely put a lot of thought into finding a suitable vehicle to meet the requirements of the project you’re working on. You and your crew may have done an extensive site survey. You may have even written an award-winning CONOPS. 

But before you take-off, let’s quickly review some flight safety fundamentals, especially if you’re conducting Advanced Operations in populated areas and controlled airspace. While accidents can happen even with the best planning and training, good judgement and thorough flight planning can help reduce the risk to aircraft and people on the ground. 

Here are some helpful steps to keep in mind when planning for your next flight (even if you need to do a mission on the fly):

Step 1: Know Your RPAS

RPAS weighing less than 250g (microdrones) are not bound by the same rules as heavier ones. However, pilots still need to ensure they don’t cause a hazard to other airspace users or people on the ground. They can do this by: 

  • maintaining a safe distance from people, 
  • staying below 400 feet, 
  • flying within line of sight, and 
  • staying well away from all aircraft; this includes anywhere an aircraft might takeoff and land (aerodromes, airports, heliports, etc). 

The regulations for RPAS between 250g and 25 kg are described in Part IX of the Canadian Aviation Regulations and are further divided into Basic or Advanced Operator framework, depending on the risk that surrounds the area of operation.

RPAS heavier than 25kg, or operations which do not fall under the Basic or Advanced category must get special permission, known as a Special Flight Operation Certificate or SFOC , from Transport Canada. 

Step 2: Determine your category – Basic or an Advanced Operation?

The vast majority of RPAS operations fall under the Transport Canada framework for Basic or Advanced Operations, depending on a number of factors which include:

  • Weight of the RPAS (see Step 1)
  • Airspace classification
  • Distance from bystanders

Transport Canada has provided a simple set of conditions for determining whether you are about to fly a Basic or an Advanced Operation. You can find this information here: https://tc.canada.ca/en/aviation/drone-safety/learn-rules-you-fly-your-drone/find-your-category-drone-operation

If you meet all 5 of these conditions, you’re conducting basic operations:

  • You fly it in uncontrolled airspace (more on this below)
  • You fly it more than 30 metres (100 feet) horizontally from bystanders
  • You never fly it over bystanders
  • You fly it more than 3 nautical miles from a certified airport or a military aerodrome
  • You fly it more than 1 nautical mile from a certified heliport

If you meet any 1 of these conditions, you are conducting advanced operations:

  • You want to fly in controlled airspace
  • You want to fly over bystanders
  • You want to fly within 30 metres (100 feet) of bystanders (measured horizontally)
  • You want to fly less than 3 nautical miles from a certified airport or a military aerodrome
  • You want to fly less than 1 nautical mile from a certified heliport

Know Your Airspace Rules

Canadian airspace is divided into two major classifications: Controlled Airspace and Uncontrolled Airspace. 

Controlled Airspace

  • Controlled airspace is classified as either Class A, B, C, D, or E depending on the altitude, size of the airport, the presence of a control tower, and the needs of aircraft flying under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR).
  • Controlled airspace may extend to the ground (also called a Control Zone) for 3 or more nautical miles surrounding an airport. That’s why it’s critical for RPAS pilots to confirm with aeronautical publications, or the NAV Canada Drone Portal before each flight to help identify and locate these different types of airspace, and request permission through the NAV Drone app where applicable.
  • All flights in controlled airspace are considered Advanced Operations and must obtain a Flight Authorization from NAV CANADA (see Step 3)

Uncontrolled Airspace

  • Uncontrolled airspace is classified as Class G airspace, which is not controlled by an airport tower or other Air Traffic Control service.
  • RPAS Operations in uncontrolled airspace are generally considered Basic Operations, provided all the other criteria are met. 

Special Use Airspace

  • Special Use airspace is either denoted Class F Restricted or Class F Advisory airspace, and may be controlled or uncontrolled depending on the use. 
  • Class F Restricted airspace is restricted to all airspace users (including RPAS pilots). RPAS Pilots must receive permission from the agency listed in the Designated Airspace Handbook in order to fly in Class F Restricted airspace. 
  • RPAS pilots are not necessarily restricted from flying in Class F Advisory airspace, although they should be aware of the increased risk from other aircraft which may be operating close to the ground. 
  • The NAV Canada Drone Portal can help pilots identify Class F airspace and provide information on the special use of this airspace. 

Know Your Distance from Bystanders›

Drone flights may also pose a risk to bystanders on the ground, especially when flying in highly populated areas where you don’t have control over people not directly involved in the operation. RPAS operators must maintain at least 30m from bystanders unless they are flying a drone which has been declared by the manufacturer to meet certain safety and design standards. Transport Canada maintains a list of these approved drones available to the public which is updated regularly.

Remember, the weight of the drone, the type of airspace, and the distance from bystanders define the category of the operation. The rules for Basic and Advanced Operations do not change if you are flying your drone for fun, for business, research purposes, or for public safety. 

RPAS Pilots must also be aware of the licensing and registration requirements for Basic and Advanced Operations. More information for these requirements is available from Transport Canada.

Step 3: Obtain RPAS Flight Authorization (Advanced Operations)

All RPAS operators, regardless of the nature or urgency of their operation, are required to obtain an RPAS Flight Authorization from NAV CANADA prior to operating in controlled airspace. 

Why is this important?

Obtaining this authorization is critical for managing airspace risk, and ensures that aircraft in the vicinity are properly notified of RPAS operations. If you don’t, then the likelihood of a collision increases, which in turn makes it harder for the RPAS industry to build a safety rapport and could hamper Transport Canada’s efforts to enable flights Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS). 

In recent months, NAV CANADA has made it much easier for RPAS operators of all levels to request Flight Authorization. Using the NAV Drone app or web interface, users can request a Flight Authorization to fly in controlled airspace. Depending on the flight location and requested altitude, certain Flight Authorizations may be issued automatically as soon as a request is submitted. 

More information about the NAV Drone app is available from NAV CANADA.

Step 4: Additional on-the-job Considerations 

Even Basic Operations outside of controlled airspace are not entirely free of airspace risks, and RPAS operators conducting these flights should be prepared to react to conflicting traffic at low altitude. 

As part of completing a site assessment, you should identify nearby hazards, populated areas, aerodromes, controlled airspace, and its location relative to yourself, as well as, other airspace activities that may bring manned aircraft close to your operations. 

Additionally, as an operator, you are required to immediately notify the appropriate air traffic control unit if your aircraft is no longer under pilot control, and is likely to enter airspace you don’t have permission to fly in.

All pilots should stop to ask themselves the following questions when conducting an operation. Your diligence could make the difference between a safe flight and a tragedy.

  • Where is the nearest controlled airspace? Is a Flight Authorization from NAV CANADA required for this operation? 
  • When was the last time you reviewed (and practiced) your emergency procedures?
  • Is your site survey complete? 
  • Do you know who to call if your RPAS is no longer in control and enters controlled airspace? 
  • Are required documents and manuals immediately available to crew members?
  • Are there any maintenance issues or problems with your RPAS that have gone unserviced? 

More information about the Canadian Air Regulations, operator licensing, and other drone safety can be found at Transport Canada’s Drone Safety homepage.

RPAS pilots are valid users of airspace, and with understanding and application of best practices and regulation, we can ensure safe and productive skies for all!