A few weeks ago, I visited Michigan for the first time in over six years. This long of a hiatus is unusual for me, personally, as I have a significant number of friends and family living all over the state. My childhood summers were spent visiting their great lakes. I’ve made close to forty trips throughout my life. As I only took up flying drones a few years back, it was my first time bringing one (actually two, in case one malfunctions unexpectedly) to document my travels.
I made a list of possible attractions to cover as a hobbyist and discussed them with a local Bay Area friend who grew up there. “You have to fly over Boblo Island. It’s an abandoned amusement park, I bet you’ll get some great footage.” I was thrilled with the insider tip… until I fired up AirMap and discovered that Grosse Ile Airport (ONZ) covered the area. That’s when I had to decide, with my trip being a week out, the logical next step.
Pop quiz: When it comes to public airport space that doesn’t fall into Classes A, B, C, D, or E, you should…
A) File a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM)
B) Call the airport’s main line and ask for permission to fly
C) Call the airport’s main line and notify them of your flight plans
D) Don’t bother, just be careful and let them know only if something goes awry
If you guessed anything other than option C, you’re in the wrong. As I learned from the excellent RemotePilot101 training series, filing too many NOTAMs, when it may not be required for your specific circumstances, is an easy way to get in trouble. Option D should be obvious, yet there is a small minority of pilots who create problems for the UAV industry by refusing to abide by its regulations. The discrepancy between options B and C is what’s notable.
I called Michael Duker, Grosse Ile’s Airport Manager, and left a voice message. He called back almost immediately. “I’d like to request permission to take off in Amherstberg and fly over Boblo Island.” Duker said the airport doesn’t grant permission for flights. I was temporarily crestfallen until he informed me of the technicality. Granting “permission” would open him and the airport up to liability. Instead, I was thanked for notifying him in advance. He asked what time I planned to conduct the flight plus where I planned to take off. Exact coordinates weren’t needed, just the general area.
Once he made note of it, the real bad news came forth. As it turns out, Boblo Island’s infamous abandoned attractions, which likened it to a Coney Island-type ghost town, no longer existed. They had been cleared out to make room for luxury housing. Duker ended our conversation with one final tip: some of the airport’s planes made frequent test runs along the western coast of the island – typically 700 – 1,000 feet AGL. Of course, I wouldn’t fly at that altitude, but it’s always good to know this type of information.
Sure enough, as I flew over the island the following day, there wasn’t much of interest to document. Regardless, I had a wonderful time driving through Canada and meeting some of its incredibly friendly people along the way. I should also note that when flying in any foreign country, it’s imperative to research their drone laws.
As far as the journey went, getting through Canadian customs was a breeze. However, I could have faced potential detainment, when returning to the US, if I didn’t have my car rental receipt with me. Whenever you’re flying a drone, especially in unknown territory, it always helps to be overly prepared.
Correction: In a previous version it said this also applied to commercial drone operators. Only hobbyists are required to notify public airports.
Featured image: Screenshot/SkyVector
Kara is a Bay Area-based certified remote pilot, marketing consultant, and writer working with clients including DroneDeploy, Flying Robot international Film Festival, and ACE Hardware. Follow her on Instagram for her more artistic aerial imagery.
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