I Knew I Was in Trouble

Oliver Enzo has an amazing talent. It comes from something innately embedded in his nature but developed by him and honed to a high degree of skill. He is 15 years old now and has his own business in drone video work. At the age of 13 I bought him his first high quality video Drone. At age fourteen he took his talent to Burning Man and was approved for one of just 30 Drone Pilot Permits out of 70,000 Burning Man participants. While there he Shot some drone footage for a You Tuber with over ten million subscribers to his channel. Ollie’s footage can be seen in the You Tube Video the guy produced. His flying skill is impressive. It is matched by his eye for the shot and his ability to edit moving images and music together into a beautiful final product.

I know I already said it, but he is a really good pilot. But he is also a fifteen year old kid. Under the rules for Small Unmanned Aerial Systems (Drones) you have to have an FAA issued Commercial operators certification in order to do commercial work. To be eligible to get the certification you have to be 16 years of age. What’s up with that? Well, the FAA controls all the country’s airspace and drones are just one of the users of that airspace. Actually They’re the new kids on the block in terms of airspace users.

Though many view drones as a nuisance or as as irritating toys, or unwanted invaders of their privacy, Drones occupy a respected place in aviation and provide an impressive array of services beneficial to society. They can also pose a danger. That’s why the FAA requires commercial users to take a test demonstrating adequate knowledge of the airspace regulations to operate safely and in a coordinated manner with both manned and other unmanned aerial vehicles. Within the language of the FAA Part 107 regulations (That’s the rules governing drone use) there is a stipulation that every mission must be under the control of a Remote Pilot in Command. That is the person holding the Certification. But the person doing the actual flying need not be the RPIC (Remote Pilot in Command). The person actually piloting the drone is referred to as “The Person Manipulating the Controls”. This person is under the supervision and direction of the RPIC but isn’t required to be FAA Certified. The RPIC just has to be able to take control of the drone should an emergency arise.

Here’s the little dance with words that has allowed Ollie to operate commercially: I am the RPIC. As a gift to Ollie for his fifteenth birthday I studied the regulations, completed an in-depth online course and took the FAA Proctored exam and have received my Part 107 Certification. This allows me to be the Remote Pilot in Command and Ollie to be the person manipulating the controls. He is a much more skilled pilot than I will ever be. In fact I haven’t even flown one of his good drones before getting certified. You don’t even have to demonstrate competency flying the drone in order to become a certified SUAS Remote Pilot by the FAA. I expect they will tighten that loophole pretty soon. But for now it has worked out for us.

I have since begun to learn to fly drones and how to shoot still images and video with them. Nothing spectacular. When our family were on an annual camping trip to Mono Hot Springs last Summer there were fires in the mountains and some of them were said to be getting within a few miles of the campground. The Camp Host, Jen had been in contact with Cal-Fire who were keeping her updated on the fire status and making contingency plans with her for how to evacuate or lock down the campgrounds should that become necessary. She said evacuation would be unlikely given the nature of the terrain, the woods, the abundance of water in camp and the limited capacity of the roads to facilitate a quick exodus. Also she said that if fire fighters were needed in the area the roads would need to be clear for them and their equipment, so anyone trying to leave under those conditions could get into trouble for obstructing an active firefighting effort.

There were days with helicopters circling for hours, trailing buckets that they were filling in a nearby lake and dropping on the fires. One day, after Making sure the choppers had ceased their activity several of us went on a hike up to a ridge to see if we could see any nearby plumes of smoke. Over an hour had passed since the last sight or sound of helicopter activity was registered. Ollie let me use his Mavic Pro drone to take up in the air and see what that vantage point could afford me. It is strictly forbidden to fly a drone anywhere near where aerial firefighting operations are in progress, and for good reason. You could cause the crash of a helicopter and endanger the lives of the crews in the air and on the ground. So I waited until there was absolutely no other air traffic for an extended period before I launched. From atop a granite outcrop I ascended straight up to a height of 200 feet, through an opening in the trees. Using my iPhone as a monitor the drone was sending me real-time video of the surrounding area. I did a 360 degree rotation and could see no nearby smoke or fires. That was a relief. I buzzed around above the tree tops for a few minutes shooting some video of Thule Lake with its high vertical granite wall standing from the smooth surface of the water up over a hundred feet high. I tried to spy the other hikers who had come out on the adventure with me, but I didn’t get a glimpse of them. I could hear them calling out like peacocks from below, I just couldn’t see them from the air.

After I landed and reported the fire status to the group we hiked back toward camp. One of the group asked if there was any interest on a side trip to Doris Lake for a dip before returning to camp. I wanted to go to get a shot of the lake and of Eagle Rock, which is a granite promontory rising some 45 feet or so above the lake and is a popular spot for thrill-seekers to jump off and enjoy that brief moment in the air that stretches out time, but compresses space into a tiny concentrated point while the experience lasts.

Sarah, her Labradoodle Charlotte and I broke off from the others and ambled the twisting, rugged trail to the top end of Doris. We scrambled over the bouldery stretch to the spot where access to the water is easy. There Sarah and Charlotte went in for a swim. The surface of the lake was as smooth as I had ever seen it. The skyline was beginning to blush as the Sun arced toward the place where it would intersect the profile of the peaks to the West. The quiet added to the beautiful stillness of the scene… It would be a majestic shot. I was excited and nervous as I unfolded the arms of the compact flying camera.

I went through my pre-flight procedure: Pairing the drone to my phone, making sure the drone and the transmitter were functional, removing the brace and cover that protect the delicate camera and gimbal assembly. My heart was pounding and my hands a little shaky as I lifted off. Sarah and Charlotte were just past halfway across the lake, already on their return leg of the swim, making a smooth wake of ripples as they plied the serene water. I flew toward them shooting video as I approached the midway mark of the lake where I intended to hover in place and rotate the drone 180 degrees to frame up the shot of Eagle Rock with the sunset bursting behind it. Instead of rotating the position of the drone though I mistakenly rotated the camera into a downward position, straight at the surface of the water. No big deal. I could edit that glitch out later.

I corrected that and drew the aim of the lens back to the plane I was after, pivoted into position and enjoyed the way I was able to arrange the shot. The smoke from fires brought out all the glory of the Sunset backlighting the scene. There was still more than enough light so the lake and the face of Eagle were fully exposed though. It was as lovely as I had hoped. There is a dynamic way of enhancing a scene like this when making video with the drone. What you do is line up the shot and then fly upwards and backwards, away from the subject. I have seen Ollie use this technique many times and thought it would be the perfect way to record the splendor of nature and preserve that moment. So that’s what I did.

Up and away, the field of view enlarging as I drew further from my side of the lake. Nice. Very nice. Another second or so should do it. Better get a visual on the drone to be sure I’m above the trees on the opposite bank. Just a quick glance up. Oh Fuck!

The drone was close to a tall Pine tree growing out of the rock right on the edge of the far shore and only about halfway up its height. I reversed the stick to full forward in an effort to avoid hitting the tree. But the drone was going fast and its momentum couldn’t reverse instantaneously. My heart landed in my stomach, maybe even my small intestine as I watched the little Mavic Pro impact the needled branch of that High Sierra Pine so close to the water’s edge.

My first worry was that the thing would bounce off the tree into the lake and sink. That would be the worst case. If it went into the water, of course the electronics would be fried and the drone would be ruined. Ollie has it insured, so if I could retrieve it we could replace it. But the water is deep and dark under the limbs of that tree. My heartbeat stopped while I waited for it to tumble down the limbs and splash. My breath caught high in my chest as I awaited the worst. One, two , three seconds passed and the red and green lights signaled that the drone remained high up in those arboreal clutches. Thank God! I moved the two control sticks into the down and inward position shutting down the motors to keep them from burning up, unable to spin as they were.

This is Bad! I have to get that drone out of that tree before it falls out! Before the Sun goes down. I can’t leave it there overnight. “Sarah, I got Ollie’s drone stuck up in a tree on the other side of the lake. You and Charlotte don’t have to stay with me, but I have to go over there and try to get that drone back. I can’t leave it in the tree”. “Oh my God Miguel!”, Sarah responded, “Where is it? “. It’s right across the lake about 40 feet up a tree”, I told her. “How am I going to get over there? I could swim, but then I’ll be across the lake having to climb that tree in just my shorts. That won’t work. I’m going to have to hike around the back of the lake, up and over that high rock and down to where the tree is.” “Of course we’re going to stay with you. There’s no way we could let you do that by yourself. What if something happened? What if you fall out of that tree? I think you should just leave it. You’re never going to be able to get up there and get it back”. “I may not be able to get it, but I have to do my best to try. It’s Ollie’s drone and I can’t just give up on it without trying”. Sara was doubtful, “I don’t see how you mean to get at it. It’s way up there. You aren’t going to be able to climb that tree are you? How do you know you won’t fall?” I was feeling desperate, “I am not going to take any unreasonable risks. I need to get over there and see if the tree is strong enough to climb. The Sun is getting pretty low already. I hate to drag you through this, but I have to get moving or it’s going to be dark.” Sarah was obviously not comfortable with any of this, but she is too solid a person to abandon me to my stupidity and misadventure. She was picturing me lying under that tree on the bare granite, fractured and unable to help myself. I felt terrible putting her through this.

We set off retracing our steps around the back of the lake. “How are we going to get over to where it is?”, Sarah asked as we pounded out a brisk cadence. “I’ve been over there with Ollie before, one of the times we camped out up here”, I told her… “the year before we did it with you and Noah”. There’s a trail that goes up and over those rocks and that big humpbacked hill, down to the other bank”. Continuing to walk fast she confided in me, “I should tell you my depth perception is not good once the light is low. I may have a hard time picking out my footing as it gets darker. And also I don’t care for scrambling and off-trail hiking. Jeanie LaPage always wanted to do hikes that way when we would go hiking and I never got comfortable with it.”. “I’m sorry Sarah. I really appreciate your willingness to stay with me. That means a lot. Let’s try to get over there quickly and I’ll see if I can even get into that tree. If I can, then I’ll go up and try to get Ollie’s drone back. If it looks like there’s no way up to it we’ll be able to say we tried and we’ll go back to camp”.

We made pretty good time humping through the back country. Sarah, her caveats acknowledged, had no difficulty arriving on the far side of the lake with sunlight to spare. She didn’t come all the way down to where the tree stood. I think she didn’t want to be that near if I should fall. She did sort of run a monologue of how I might fall. I couldn’t get all the way up there. The limbs probably wouldn’t hold my weight. Though I did appreciate her concern and especially her presence I had to say to myself, “To Hell with that!” I was resolved to get up into that Pine, figure a way to reach out the 8 feet or so from the trunk where the drone was suspended and safely retrieve that thing! I can get very determined and willful when I have to. This was one of those times. I had flown my son’s drone into a tree on the far side of a lake and I could not go back to camp without doing my absolute damndest…without pushing my limits to their utmost so I could to return it to him.

Sarah and Charlotte sat on a naturally formed granite bench about 50 yards up the slope from where I stood testing the the strength of the lower limbs. From ground level it looked promising. The limbs started only about 4 1/2 feet up the trunk and were about 5 inches in diameter. That should be strong enough. The spacing of the limbs appeared to be such that a climber should be able to reach from one to another without having to be a contortionist. I shouted to Sarah, “The limbs seem strong enough. I’m going to give it a try!” “Just be careful Miguel!”, came her reply.

I turned my cap around with the bill toward the back of my head, reached out gripping the dry rough bark of the first branch and hung my weight from it. 200 pounds is a lot to ask of a tree limb to hold. No problem. No crisp crackling noises like the wood was going to pieces. No sagging down. So I put a foot against the trunk, leaned back and pulled myself up into that pine. Once I was standing on that lower limb I could see there was a little issue. There were going to be spots where I was going to have to use little dead limb stubs to transition from branch to branch. That could be a problem. “If I’m going to fall that’s how it will happen”, I thought to myself. Better just test one of them now, while I’m still only a few feet up to see what happens.

These stubs are just about four to eight inches long. They are dead-wood with no bark and many of them are cracked and look to be just dangling from the trunk, waiting for the next breeze, or chipmunk to knock them onto the rocks or into the lake below. 200 pound chipmunk…Jesus Christ, what am I doing? I’m not ten years old anymore. My best tree climbing days are clearly far far behind me. Do I really have any business at more than halfway through my fifties assaulting this dignified, centuries old sentry of the mountain lake? Stop it Miguel! Those thoughts are not going to help you get all that way up there and complete your mission. It is time to simplify your thoughts and refine your focus. Take a few breaths and become one with the tree. Envision your success and then perform the physical steps that bring you to it. You still have that ten year old tree climbing aficionado inside you. Access him and bring that drone safely down.

Upward I continued, testing each branch, each stub, with first a little weight and then more, satisfying myself that that would not be the one to give way. By the time I was fifteen feet up I was crawling with ants. They were everywhere! At first I thought there was just a line of ants in the lower branches and once I was higher I would be out of them, but they were in every inch of the tree. I tried brushing them off. There were just so many! I got the ones off my neck and face and carried on. Every few feet I had to swipe some more off, the most distracting ones anyway. You have got to be kidding me! This is how it’s going to be? “You have gotten yourself into this situation Miguel”, I chided. “These damn ants are just going on with their lives. You go on with yours”. Refocus. Calm. But “Shit!” They’re getting in my nose and mouth! Fuck it! I’ll just have to do my best to ignore them until I get back down.

Let me just say that the bark of this old tree is really sharp and jagged. It is scratching up my skin something fierce! It’s beginning to burn on my arms and legs. At least it almost gets my mind off the ants. Am I breathing this hard because I’m exerting myself at 7’000 feet elevation, or because I’m nervous I wont be able to get the drone back safely, or because I fear I may fall out of this ant farm? Not sure, but I certainly am not used to breathing this fast. Just slow down a bit. Not much further to go. Make your movements deliberate. Now is not the time to rush.

I can’t say how much time I’ve spent in these prickly, ant crawling pine boughs, but I’ve finally reached the level of the drone. The red and green lights are at eye level. Looking down I’d say at least 40 feet up. In against the trunk as I worked my way to this point I haven’t had any real reason to worry about falling, but now I am faced with the problem of how to reach the drone that looks like it’s more like ten feet out the limb than the eight feet I had guessed from the ground. There’s nothing I can use to reach for it. That means I am going to have to go out to it, hang myself ten feet out these limbs. Their diameter isn’t as broad up here as it was below. Hmmm, the branch the drone is in is pretty strong looking. I can put some weight on that one, but not all my weight. I wouldn’t trust it for that. About five feet down there’s another decent sized one. It looks like my best bet is to distribute my weight between the two of them… stand on the one below and hold onto the upper one, not putting too much weight on either. That should work. Hopefully. If one fails, I will need the other to do all the heavy lifting and keep me this side of the River Styx.

A few inches at a time I test the competency of the two limbs I am suspending my life from. Away from the safety of the trunk, where the branches are thick and strong, I continue outward. There is Sarah with Charlotte up the slope a ways. I don’t really know her that well. We have camped together up here with our sons, away from the rest of the group that once. We have shared carpool driving from Bonny Doon to Santa Cruz where our kids are in school together. Her husband, Sam and I are in the same loose-knit group known as the Bonny Doon Gentlemen’s Leisure Club. (Great group by the way!) We have been at numerous social gatherings where we have friends in common… that is what it is to be a Dooner. Everyone knows everyone and everyone helps each other out. Now she’s standing by me in this harebrained photo op come off the rails. She didn’t have to stay. I wouldn’t have blamed her if she had left. Would I have done the same for her? I would. Without hesitation. Does she know that? I hope she could guess.

Just a few feet more to go. At this point there’s a fair bit of dead material in the branches between the drone and me. That doesn’t reassure me. I want these to be the healthiest, most verdant goddamn pine boughs I have ever seen! Nothing to do for it though. This dead stuff is in my way. I have to remove some of it to be able to reach the drone. So I snap off a few little twiggy bits and drop them. It doesn’t occur to me that Sarah is going to hear this and think I’m falling. I’m just honestly not thinking about that right now, okay. Who are you to judge? Almost there. I move out a little further. Really. Not. Digging. This! A little further. What if I stretch? Can I reach it? Balancing as best I can I extend my arm as far as I can. I don’t want to test the good nature of these branches any more than I already have. But I have to. I can’t reach. Out I shimmy. Just another half a foot. Reach. Got It!

Unbelievable! I don’t believe it myself! I really, truly don’t. I have Ollie’s little Alpine White Mavic Pro drone in my hand. It appears grossly intact. I powered down the battery. I haven’t fallen. I am going to have to tell him what happened. When I get back to camp I shall have to confess what I have done. It is totally my fault. I did not maintain awareness of my surroundings. But I have rescued the drone. Well almost. I still have to get down from this high pickle, but compared to the climb, when I didn’t know if it could be done… the descent should be easy. Fold the arms and props into their compact positions. Stow it into the cargo pocket of my shorts. (It fits!). Get back in toward the central column of the tree trunk and down I go.

Once I felt my feet back on the ground I let out a grateful sigh. The worst had been averted. The drone wasn’t in the lake. It wasn’t in the tree. It was in my pocket. I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t damaged. It has some delicate parts I had no way to assess at that moment, but it wasn’t obviously destroyed. Now we just had to get back down to camp. After I get these ants off me. I was actually lucky. The ants weren’t too interested in biting and the tree was strangely absent of sap. The scrapes from the bark were the worst I had suffered.

The Sun had fallen below the horizon while I was up the tree. It would be dark before we saw camp. We still had to scramble off trail for a good distance, then it would be a mile hike over rugged granite down to the the streamside campsite where our families would be, worrying over what had become of us. I thought they would be anyway. But Sarah had called them. Her cell phone got reception all the way out there! So much for remote back country experience! She had already told them what had happened and what I was attempting. (That took some of the sting out of the confession I was going to have to make to my son). She called again to let them know we were headed back down.

It was difficult going at first, skirting over, around and sometimes through thickets of wild roses. The major feature of these flowers is not the flowers. It is the thorns. An unreasonable abundance of them. What function can that many thorns serve? Half as many would be twice what’s needed to deter any creature from wanting anything to do with them! I tried to hold them aside, or down for Sarah when I could. Even so this was the worst part of the hike. There was no rhythm and we had to invent our route, since there was not trail on this stretch. Charlotte didn’t seem to mind.

She guided us enthusiastically once we were back on the trail. We had to watch our step. Luckily no rattle snakes had encamped in the trail. They are common up there and enjoy stretching out in the evening. We never heard a buzz. No-one tripped as the twilight deepened.

Before long we were back at camp, where the others were finishing dinner. There was some saved aside for us. The confession I thought I was going to have to make was never needed. Ollie, mindful of the stipulation that I am to supervise him when he flies a mission relished this opportunity to tell me he is going to have to supervise me when he lets me fly his drone in the future. That little turnabout filled him with a certain pride and gave him a good natured way to show he had the upper hand on me. Fair enough. He wasn’t angry. He doesn’t really get angry. (I’m not sure how he does that.) He was gracious enough, not forgetting that he, too has had mishaps in the air. Nothing was lost. The drone wasn’t even damaged we determined. The trouble I was in had trickled away down over boulders and up into the air. I learned through heart pounding adrenaline to maintain awareness of my position relative to potential hazards. Best of all, now I have this tale to tell.