Drone flying tips from an air ambulance pilot


We recently shared footage of a past patient Michael Hallas getting airlifted after having a seizure in his home in Spennymoor.


This footage was taken with permission and under direct instruction from the on-duty GNAAS pilot. But the video sparked conversation surrounding the use of drones near an aircraft.

Here, GNAAS pilot Owen McTeggart explains the dangers of drones in relation to an air ambulance service, and how you can fly responsibly.

GNAAS pilot Owen McTeggart

Drones have many uses, many of which bring great benefit to society, such as:

  • The Environment Agency might use drones to check river levels, this can help with flood alerts
  • Mountain rescue use drones to help search lost walkers in the fells
  • The police will also use drones for search reasons which free up staff for policing matters
  • Farmers use drones to check the conditions of their crops
  • TV companies will use drones for aerial shots

The concern for GNAAS pilots is for the untrained, casual drone operator that might not understand the potential dangers of mixing drones with other aviation.

Drone or UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) are getting cheaper and increasing in numbers. Like all new technology, it is about awareness and taking responsibility.

Laser pens are a good case in point: laser pens are fun toys, but when people shine a laser at an aircraft, they don’t have an awareness of the issues that this is causing a pilot. Because of this, they don’t fully understand the potential risk to life.

Drone code

When you fly a drone in the UK, it is your responsibility to know the rules in place to keep everyone safe, the DRONE code is a good guide. Follow these simple steps to make sure you are flying safely and legally:

Don’t fly near airports

And be extra cautious if there is a hospital nearby

Remember to stay below 400ft

You might still encounter an air ambulance helicopter at this height. If you hear a helicopter, ground your drone until you can confirm there is no conflict.

Observe your drone at all times

If you can’t see your drone, you cannot guarantee the safety of other aviation.

Never fly near an aircraft

Don’t be tempted to film the helicopter landing or taking off unless you have coordinated with the pilot.

Enjoy responsibly

Please be aware of how your drones may affect other people.

Other considerations to bear in mind:

Height of flying

The rules are there for a reason and individuals flying drones should keep the device and general/commercial aviation apart. It is restricted to fly a drone above 400 feet and general aviation is not permitted below 500 feet (1000 feet over built-up areas). This should give some separation. However, UK air ambulances (including GNAAS) may fly lower than 500 feet for life-saving missions, bringing us into conflict with those drones operating at 400 feet.

Surroundings

For obvious reasons, drones are not permitted to fly close to airports/airfields. But drones around hospital locations are a big concern to air ambulance helicopters. We normally have a patient on board when landing at your local hospital. The landing and take-off phases of our missions are one of the most critical and challenging parts of the job. So, please use your drone with extra caution if there is a hospital within a mile or two and put your drone on the ground until the air ambulance has landed or departed and well out of the area. If the pilot sees a drone in the hospital’s area, they will have to divert for safety reasons to the next hospital or closest airfield. This will add time to the journey that the critically ill patient might not have.

Watch out for emergency services

The curious drone owner might want to see what is happening when they see all those blue flashing lights passing by. Well, if this is you, please know that an air ambulance might follow those blue light soon. GNAAS might be there before any other emergency service. If you hear a helicopter, please put your drone on the ground until you can confirm that your drone won’t cause a conflict with the air ambulance.

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