When a Voice of San Diego member handed off the controls to his drone, he gave me one request: Do something cool with it.

I’m not sure I completed that mission, unless crash-landing into the bushes or drawing stares from strangers is cool.

Kelly Abbott let me borrow his small helicopter-like drone, outfitted with a small GoPro camera.

I was nervous, but in the weeks I’ve spent reporting on San Diego’s drone industry I’ve looked on as several enthusiasts and professionals flew them effortlessly. How hard could it be?

Pretty hard, as it turns out. Flying a drone takes some skill.

Abbott taught me the basics of flying the roughly two-pound DJI Phantom 2 in a field near Liberty Station.

That first day, I was surprised by the procedure necessary to get it started. Calibration – essentially, adjusting the drone’s compass to your location – requires spinning around a couple times while holding the drone and then flipping the control switches on and off.

Then it was time to fly. The drone sounded like a buzzing bee as it lifted off the ground. Abbott taught me how to navigate the drone, hover in one area and propel it quickly toward the clouds.

A couple weeks passed. Other stories and commitments kept me from practicing. Finally, I took it out for another few test flights last weekend.

Last Friday afternoon, a couple gawked at me in the courtyard near our offices as I repeatedly spun in circles trying to calibrate the drone. (I later learned I didn’t have to do this every time I wanted to fly it.) After I failed to do this, I retreated back inside and printed out some directions.

Then I marched back outside and managed to successfully lift off. Buoyed by excitement and a gust of wind, I instantly crash-landed into the bushes.

That was the first of several crash-landings, though I learned to land the drone in the grass repeatedly until another gust of wind – and my less-than-impressive flying skills – left it temporarily stuck in a tree.

I decided my next outing should be somewhere where I might meet other drone pilots who could offer some tips.

That’s what attracted me to the Silent Electric Flyers of San Diego‘s Mission Bay Flying Site last Sunday.

There, I met Brad Bender, who serves on the board of the model aircraft enthusiast group. Bender noticed me fumbling with some printed directions and walked over to see if I needed help.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

Bender was effortlessly flying the drone almost immediately. I sometimes struggled to lift the thing off the ground; Bender let it soar a few hundred feet in the air. He estimated it could fly much higher, perhaps up to 600 feet.

Here’s some quick video footage he captured in the process:

YouTube video

And here’s what happened when I took the controls.

Spoiler alert: I still need work on my landing skills.

YouTube video

Bender revealed some of the skills he’s gained after years of flying small drones – which enthusiasts often call model aircraft – though the drone’s battery ran out before he could show me. (The Phantom’s battery generally lasts for just about 25 minutes.)

He’s learned to fly a drone into a gazebo that’s hundreds of feet away from the main Mission Bay flight area and even land on the table inside.

Other drone enthusiasts have gotten skilled with cinematography.

Check out the beautiful Sonoma landscapes journalist Sally French captured with her DJI Phantom:

YouTube video

Or the dolphin and whale stampedes footage from Orange County-based whale watching safari Capt. Dave Anderson:

YouTube video

One similarity seems to bind many of these especially skilled drone users: They’re concerned about folks like me who are less skilled.

My initial plan was to take the drone from the Mission Bay practice site to Balboa Park or the Ocean Beach pier. I wanted to see how folks would react and what questions they’d ask.

Bender said that wasn’t cool.

“We don’t like to fly over people and cars,” said Bender, who admitted that drone malfunctions and even public interest can pose safety risks. He refuses to fly his drone into that gazebo, he said, when there are people around.

It’s difficult to safely land a drone –many of which rely on sharp propellers to lift off – when a crowd of children is chasing it or people are running around it, he said.

Philip Odegard, who owns a Rancho Bernardo-based drone photography company, recently shared his frustration with drone pilots who don’t take those safety risks seriously.

He panicked last month when he saw a drone hovering just feet above the Coaster tracks as a train sped toward it. The pilot, who was laughing with his friends, managed to fly away just seconds before impact.

Odegard worries careless or inexperienced hobbyists like that man – and I guess, me –could lead to regulatory headaches for businesses and responsible enthusiasts.

Indeed, a drone plummeted into the grandstands during a bull run event in Virginia last year, injuring a handful of spectators. In another incident, a triathlete claimed she was injured by a drone buzzing around an Australian race. And recently, the FAA spoke about a March incident where a small drone nearly collided with an American Airlines regional jet.

The FAA official who leads the agency’s drone-related initiatives recently pointed to the situation as a reason for caution as it hashes out regulations for drones.

Odegard, Bender and most drone newcomers like me are urged to fly just 400 feet above ground level, at least 100 feet lower than planes typically fly.

Flying lower to the ground translates into lots of interesting reactions.

Odegard recently shot footage of a home near the Mission Beach boardwalk and had several passersby tell him they’d like to shoot down his drone. Another chastised him for spying.

I received generally more positive comments during my outings.

A few people I didn’t know commented on how cool the drone was or asked where I’d gotten it. A couple cars stopped to watch me fly it.

One onlooker actually helped me retrieve Abbott’s drone after yes, another gust of wind left it stuck in a tree. Again.

None of those reactions was quite as dramatic as one I heard over the weekend.

Clairemont resident Victor Harding, who joined Bender at the Mission Bay flying hub, said his nephew was once flying his drone over a neighbor’s house in Chula Vista and accidentally landed it on their property. Concerned, the family took the boy’s drone to the police.

Harding said the police returned it after they decided the boy hadn’t meant any harm.

Bender, who has watched many drone enthusiasts and first-timers, said that story drives home the responsibility drone pilots have for their unmanned aircraft,

“Anybody can go into a hobby shop and buy these things but they need to be careful,” he said.

I didn’t experience any drone-related disasters but after trying one out myself, I’m convinced Bender’s right.

This is part of our quest digging into the drone industry in San Diego. Check out the previous story – San Diego-Area Cops: We’re Not Interested in Drones – Yet – and the next in our series – Drone-Makers Ponder the Path to Friendlier Skies in California.

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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