We chat to John Layden, founder of Drone Alps – a company specialising in aerial video & photography in the French Alps.
I’m 26 years old and grew up in Northamptonshire, UK. At 18 I did a ski season as a dishwasher in Chamonix and immediately fell in love with the French Alps. Life as a plongeur was hard and although the rewards of living in a ski resort were invaluable, the pay wasn’t. I decided it was best to go back home, go to university and get qualified. I had very little idea on what I was going to do and so I needed some inspiration. Since I was born in the 80’s Shania Twain was hugely influential to me, in particular her smash hit “That Don't Impress Me Much”. The seed had been planted; my life goal was to become a rocket scientist.
When the time came, I had decided on aerospace engineering as my university course of choice. It was as close to learning about rockets as I could realistically get and gave me the perfect opportunity to impress girls relentlessly during the 3 years I was a student. It didn’t really work. I should have paid closer attention to the lyrics of the song when I was young.
After a short stint as a maths teacher in the UK, I decided that what I really wanted to do was to move back to the French Alps and get something off the ground there. I have always been a keen RC flyer and videographer and so when camera drones came into the picture I was instantly hooked. It was time to give drone piloting a shot.
How did you become a drone pilot in France?
It wasn’t easy. The hardest part was definitely the paperwork! Anyone who has opened a bank account in France will know what I’m talking about. The amount of red tape is astounding. Not only was there hundreds of forms to complete, but the technical language is barely comprehensible, even to many native French speakers! It was a long battle, helped massively by Google and motivated by the bittersweet words of my old French teacher who repeatedly told me: “You’ll never succeed in French”.
The basic key requirements are:
- The drone you fly must be authorised
- You must have public liability insurance
- You must be trained
- You must declare your activities
- You must have a pilot’s license
It was the last requirement which was most surprising to me. Because there is currently no such thing as a drone license (as of July ’15), you have to get an actual pilot’s license instead. It was a huge undertaking and one that will no doubt put a lot of people off. All those hours spent playing Microsoft Flight Simulator will not come in handy here I’m afraid. I chose to do a microlight theory test, which is rumoured to be the easiest one to pass, and spent many months learning the French terms for parts of an airplane and various stages of cloud formation. Here is an example of the types of questions you can expect to see. I have graded their difficulty as best as I can.
L'alcool, même absorbé en faible quantité:
- A. augmente les performances visuelles
- B. n'affecte en rien la sensibilité au manque d'oxygène et favorise la montée en altitude
- C. diminue les facultés du cerveau et augmente la sensibilité des cellules au manque d'oxygène
- D. stimule le cerveau et diminue les effets au manque d'oxygène"
L'angle entre le cap magnétique et la cap compas s'appelle:
- A. la dérive.
- B. la déclinaison.
- C. la déviation.
- D. la variation.
Dans une TMA, la position verticale d'un aéronef doit être transmise en prenant comme référence:
- A. 1013 sous l'altitude de transition et le QNH au-dessus.
- B. le QNH sous l'altitude de transition et 1013 au-dessus.
- C. le QFE au-dessus de l'altitude de transition et 1013 au-dessus.
- D. le QFU en dessous de l'altitude de transition et 1013 au-dessus."
I’m convinced that Shania Twain helped me pass this exam, as my degree in aerospace engineering definitely helped me out on a few occasions. I will never forget the expression on my examiners face when I struggled to find the words for “have I passed” in French. Not surprisingly he double checked my ID before handing over my certificate. Before I forget, the correct answers are: CCB, and there are 40 more questions like that waiting for you in the real exam!
What’s it like being a drone pilot?
It’s incredibly fun but can be immensely challenging.
The drones give me so much versatility and allow me to take part in some really interesting projects. I’m currently using my drones to do many different types of filming, including property, sports and events.
Sports filming is particularly difficult because it involves a moving subject and adds an added level of pressure when you only have one chance to get the shot, such as during a race!
Chalet filming is really unique because you can fly up close to the property and capture its backdrop in dramatic ways that were previously impossible to achieve. The feedback has been great, as chalet owners love seeing their property from a totally new angle.
The potential applications for drones are endless though, and so I’m looking at future uses such as 3D terrain modelling, aerial mapping and even aerial delivery too. Search and rescue is also an area I see drones helping with in the near future. I have already been approached twice to help locate missing animals in the mountains of Chamonix Mont-Blanc.