How to prepare for your RUSTA Operational Evaluation – Dun, dun, durrrn – The Flight Assessment!!!

The date’s been set. You’ve received your Task Brief. Insurance is in the bag. You’re mid-planning; up to your eye balls in aviation charts, planning tools, site surveys and kit checks. You’ve spent aaaaages out in the lonelier areas of the U.K. honing your flying skills and developing your “Maverick style” situational awareness… You pause for a moment… surveying the scene of apparent anarchy and destruction that surrounds you… then, without any invitation, that familiar niggling question whimsically enters your thoughts…  “Am I ready for this?”

I remember the feeling well  – predominantly from my time in that Air Force, sitting under my self-constructed Sword of Damocles, feeling that ‘mostly self-induced’ pressure of my impending ‘check ride’.

I say ‘mostly self-induced’ because, looking back, it was! A most human thing to do, applying pressure to oneself, but I always found myself asking that same question – a question that left the door ajar for the nerves to start creeping in. Not the most constructive thought pattern…

And so, to assist in ridding yourself of that sense of impending doom, and to allay any rumours currently circulating on the mill, I thought I’d give you a quick ‘heads up’ on how best to prepare for your RUSTA Operational Evaluation.

The first thing that I would highlight is that it is just a ‘check ride’. Your RUSTA instructor is there to assist you through the process. As serving and ex-military aircrew, they will have experienced a great number of ‘check rides’ and they completely understand your point of view and the fact that you may be a little anxious on the day. Believe me, everyone experiences ‘Test-itis’ to some degree!

Relax – this is just a day out flying. It just so happens that on this day out, your RUSTA instructor will be with you to offer assistance and guide you along. Sure, it is an assessment, and the instructor is there to ensure that you are safe and competent enough to undertake commercial UAV operations, but RUSTA takes an incredibly educational stand point within all of our instructional activities. We’re here to help.

Flight Safety is of course ‘king’ but your business is at the centre of what we do. We know that you want to portray your best side and to protect and develop your business. You want to safeguard the considerable investment that you have already made in your system and time. That is a big part of why we dedicate as much time as we do to your Operational Evaluation. Depending on your aircraft type, candidates are typically airborne for around fifteen to twenty minutes during the Op Eval. However, RUSTA plan an hour and a half, more if required, for you to go through the process.

That time is there for you. Use it as you wish to. We approach the Eval as a mock task and will expect to see you deliver ‘your product’. Bring all of the equipment that you would for an actual commercial operation and perhaps treat the assessment as your first job. Update your site survey and walk the area of operations. Assess sites of potential electromagnetic interference. Cordon as you see fit, but remember, a cordon can sometimes be a double edged sword! Don’t be afraid to reflect with your instructor and ask for their guidance, if required. They will interact as much as possible but will want to see you engage in your own decision making processes and will look for you to make the final call(s).

Most importantly, behave as you normally would. Endeavour not to ‘ham’ anything up for the assessment and try not to operate differently just because it’s an assessment. Your instructor will only be able to give you feedback on what you deliver. The more honest your delivery, the more valuable your instructor’s feedback will be.

At this juncture, it would perhaps be an advantage for me to list a few thought provoking tips:

Weather: It is our nemesis. Keep an eye on the weather as the date of your Op Eval approaches. Remember “Don’t bin it on an early forecast”. It’s your decision as to whether you proceed on the day, though if it is looking ‘marginal’, by all means contact your instructor and discuss with them. For your Op Eval, it’s good practice to leave the decision until as adjacent as possible to the date and/or time of your booking. Contact your instructor the day prior or even on the morning, before you depart. Communication is key and your instructor will advise as to their opinion. If on the day the weather proves to be against us, then we have no alternative but to reschedule.

 Planning:  Approach your planning as you did in the classroom. PANWEAHLR is your friend. Follow the process that you undertook during your classroom based, table top planning exercise and stick to the format. It will cover you for all of the required aspects, as laid down in the CAP393 and the CAP722. Methodically update your site survey form and risk assessment. Use this information to construct your brief. When you’ve finished (or think you’ve finished) your plan, ask yourself these questions: How will I do the job? Does my plan cover this? Have I considered appropriate contingencies? And the big one: What if???

Brief: Don’t forget your time hack! Don’t forget to update your KPI! Again, stick to the format that was offered in the instructional phase. If your operation requires that you elaborate on the briefing format further, then by all means do so. Use the time. Whilst the instructor will provide feedback on the delivery of your brief, their real focus will be on the information that you provide. Keep it succinct and always allow for that ‘check of understanding’. “Any questions?” is an incredibly valuable question to pose.

Checks: A check is just a check. Do them. They can be the difference between ‘flying’ and ‘flying safely’. Batts and Sats, Airspace and Cordon, Functionals, Pre-Take Offs, Pre-Landers, wind, weather; there are plenty to keep you busy. Do them audibly and methodically. Your flight profile will offer natural pauses in which to complete your checks.  Take the time to ‘chair fly’ your profile before you get airborne and identify where these natural pauses might be.

In Flight: Don’t get drawn in by the screen! The screen can obviously be a very important tool to assist you, but it is not the object that you are flying around in UK Airspace!! Remember your scan! You have a lot of considerations to make when airborne and your work rate will be high – even in the more benign environments. A competent scan is a great asset in providing a system that ensures that you are making the right considerations at the right time.  Take time to develop your scan in your training. Initially, this can drain some capacity and require you to consistently de-brief yourself when you forget! However, if you continuously apply a scan procedure, it becomes natural and intuitive, providing a heightened situational awareness that is extremely valuable in any commercial operation.

Human Factors: Cast your mind back to the Human Factors lesson from your theory course. There are some insightful and valuable tips and considerations offered within it. Not least, with regard to orientation. Revisit your courseware and refresh yourself on its contents. Situational awareness, capacity, crew resource management, communications, airmanship, ability, aircraft knowledge, procedures – remember, it’s all about Human Factors!!

Orientation: The biggest threat to maintaining situational awareness. Endeavour to be aware of your aircraft orientation at all times! Multi-rotor UAVs have a very similar profile, whichever direction they face. At distance, this can cause a world of hurt. A slight inadvertent control input in the yawing plane and all of a sudden, situational awareness has vanished. You might still know which way is up but any lateral direction has now become a complete mystery! Be vigilant, guard against it. Wherever possible, maintain your perspective of the aircraft in its six o’clock position, in other words looking directly up the back of the aircraft with it in front of you. Try to maintain this axis. Keep left, left. Right, right. Forward, forward and back, back. Move away from the idea that you are in the cockpit of the aircraft or in First Person View (FPV).  FPV is a skill that will develop as you progress but in the interests of maintaining control and of the operator staying ahead of the aircraft, FPV should be used sparingly in the early stages of your piloting career.

Emergencies: Train for them. Prior to your arrival, get your head in to your Operations Manual and learn your emergency procedures. When you practise or undertake any kind of flying, give yourself an ‘emergency of the day’ to run through. Invariably, when you are faced with a UAV emergency, you will have very little time to respond. Knowing your emergency procedures will support you in taking the appropriate actions at the appropriate time. Your instructor will have selected several emergency procedures from your own operations manual. They will ask you to demonstrate your emergency procedures in real time, and will look for you to carry out your emergency procedures to their full and natural conclusion.  Word to the wise: If you’re system allows you to fly without GNSS assistance (Atti mode Angle mode etc.), it’s very likely that your instructor will encourage you to demonstrate your piloting capabilities without the GNSS engaged. Hmmm… maybe they’ll issue a GNSS failure emergency… or something… maybe… perhaps… who knows??

Debrief: Hugely important. Follow the debriefing format.  Without analysing and reflecting on your performance, there is no foundation from which to develop. Don’t be afraid to take your mind right back to when you first received the task. Bring any positive or negative points that you have identified to the fore and discuss, even if you only have yourself to discuss with! Ask yourself:  Is there anything that I would do differently if I were faced with the same task again? On the day, be sure to use the debrief to explore your performance. Put some ‘meat on the bones’ as to how you think you did, and describe what and how you would improve for next time.

RUSTA encourage you to have at least three recent hours’ flying experience before you come for your Op Eval. The tasks that you will be asked to achieve are designed around the permissions that you will go on to receive. In your training, expand your capacity. Fly at heights and distances that you are comfortable with and then, when happy with your aircraft configuration and clearance checks… go that little bit further…  I’m certainly not advising you to break any limits (400ft, 500m, VLOS, separation requirements) or to go too far beyond your comfort zone but in order to really know your aircraft capabilities and indeed, your own capabilities, you have to explore your boundaries. How fast does your system go? Can you safely pilot your aircraft at the more extreme parameters of its flight envelope? Maximum speeds, heights and distances are not targets to be achieved but a practical knowledge of your own and of your aircraft’s abilities is fundamental. Don’t just know the CAA’s limits, know your limits!

In truth, it’s very unlikely that you will be asked to go out to 500m or up to 400ft and we certainly won’t be expecting you to do anything at speed! With a sense of urgency; perhaps, but not speed… Your instructor however, will have to be assured that your capabilities will allow you to satisfy the allowances that the CAA offers in their Permission for Commercial Operation. We will never ask you to carry anything out that would be beyond your capabilities. There won’t be any ‘crazy’ manoeuvres and we won’t be asking to intentionally break limits. A very important aspect to remember on the day is that YOU are the boss. It’s your approach to safety, your Airmanship, your brief, your general handling, your emergency procedures that we’re interested in. The list goes on… but what we’re really interested in is you and how you would apply yourself in future UAV commercial operations.

When it’s all over, the aircraft has been safely powered down and your full and comprehensive debrief is complete, your instructor will reflect on your operation with you. I know I’m bound to say it, and fair one; you could accuse me of being a tad biased but… your instructor really knows what they are doing. They will have analysed your entire performance, from the time you received your task brief to that very moment, debriefing at the assessment site. I tell you this not to make you feel any more anxious or to pile the pressure on; no. I mention this so that you might get the maximum benefit from them. Your instructor will give you full, comprehensive and constructive feedback. Use them. Ask them questions, clarify points. We know that unless you choose to take up further training, this is perhaps the last time that you will be able to talk face to face with a RUSTA instructor. We hope that isn’t the case. We hope you stay in contact and continue to engage with us as you move through your UAV career. Our doors will always be open to you as a RUSTA candidate. However, the instructor feedback that we offer is a real opportunity for you to gather information and refine your performance. All of our instructors have a wealth of experience and knowledge and are truly invested in you as a UAS commercial Pilot in Command.

If you have ever had the pleasure of receiving one of my engaging, some say enthralling, interesting and thought provoking Human Factors sessions, you will perhaps be familiar with a slide that I have displayed that quotes an Air Force pilot describing the approach that they adopt to their flying. For those of you that haven’t seen it, it says “Prepare well. Do this by hitting the books, talk to others with more experience and find out where the gotcha’s are for the kind of flying you’ve got planned, ‘chair fly’ your flight profiles, get regular refresher instruction, and avoid complacency. Then once in flight be aware for clues that you’ve lost awareness – feeling rushed, confused, missing communications, fixation, unsure of your location and switch errors are a few of the telltale signs of failing to stay ahead of the aircraft.” I’ve always liked this quote, particularly the bit at the end: “failing to stay ahead of the aircraft.” Staying ahead of the aircraft is a huge part of what it is all about and it seemed particularly relevant to highlight again. I hope that it resonates with you as your brief interlude draws to a close and you get back to your planning… look at that risk assessment… it won’t do it itself, you know…

I hope that this little ditty has helped to invigorate you and provide a little bit of something extra for your up and coming Operational Evaluation! Keep your standards high and remember your training! From all of us at RUSTA, we wish you good luck on the day and cross our fingers that the weather gods will be kind to you! See you on the field…