Flying Photobombs

Pilots and the Selfie Generation

If you’re a pilot, you like to let people know you’re a pilot. That’s what you do.

And if you’re a Millennial Generation pilot, you take photos of yourself flying. That’s what you do.

These selfie photos and videos serve to entertain, inform, instruct, and record an astonishing diversity of pilots, planes, and places. Personal gadgets and gizmos can up the fun-factor of personal flying, but don’t let them distract you from the flying part.

Using a cell phone, tablet, or camera in flight can distract a pilot from his or her primary duty — to fly the aircraft first. The NTSB agrees and has added “Disconnect from Deadly Distractions” to its 2016 Most Wanted List for operators of all modes of transportation. The agency cites a 2011 helicopter crash caused by fuel exhaustion as part of its rationale for emphasizing the dangers of distraction. The pilot, flight nurse, flight paramedic, and patient were killed. One of the four contributing factors was “the pilot’s distracted attention due to personal texting during safety-critical ground and flight operations.”

Preflight your Gadgets

Planning ahead so you don’t get distracted by your mobile device during critical phases of flight should be part of your preflight checklist. It is especially important if you want to record from the outside of your aircraft. Regulations prohibit the attachment of non-approved devices to a type-certificated aircraft, which means you will need to get FAA approval on a case-by-case basis to attach your camera to the outside of your aircraft.

The method of mounting the camera, whether by permanent installation or attachment, matters in terms of what kind of FAA approval is required. Most cameras used by GA pilots are self-contained, portable, and sufficiently lightweight to have no appreciable effect on handling the aircraft or affecting airworthiness. For mounts that strap-on or secure with a common screw, a minor alteration is typically approved, and an entry in the aircraft logbook is made by a qualified maintainer.

On the other hand, if the mount is permanently attached to the aircraft by hard-point mechanical methods or it interfaces with aircraft navigation or electrical systems, it becomes a major alteration because it may appreciably affect airworthiness. This kind of installation requires the use of other FAA-approved data or a field approval evaluation.

Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) part 43 stipulates that an aircraft may not return to service after an alternation until approved by a certificated mechanic. And a pilot flying under 14 CFR part 91 may not operate an aircraft after maintenance has been performed, which includes minor and major alterations, until approved for return to service.

Mounting methods such as glue, suction cups, or duct tape are typically not acceptable. Failure to stay secured could cause harm to the aircraft or persons and property on the ground in the case of an in-flight detachment, which would be considered a “careless operation” under 14 CFR section 91.13 and section 91.15 for dropping an object from an aircraft.

The bottom line is that all attachments require some sort of approval. Each must be evaluated for its application and complexity to ensure safety. If you have a question, start by calling your local Flight Standards District Office (FSDO).

Secure your Gear

If the camera is a secondary portable unit hand carried onboard (inside the aircraft), the FAA typically will not get involved. Ensure that all devices used for in-flight photography are safely secured. Never place a camera, GPS, or any other mobile device in a location where it could literally be a flying hazard (e.g., freely flying around the cockpit in the event of turbulence). Even if an unsecured device doesn’t hit anything, it inevitably creates a distraction from flying duties.

Fiddling with camera settings while trying to juggle the many responsibilities you have as pilot in command puts you at risk of departing controlled flight, missing ATC radio calls, blundering into the wrong airspace, or colliding with traffic you failed to spot. Keep your priorities in order and secure that selfie gear before getting in the air.

Uploading your Selfie

Getting a great photo or video posted on your social media channel of choice is the aspiration of every “good” Millennial. However, your role as a pilot always comes first. Trying to connect to the cellular network below you is not worth the distraction — it’s not legal either. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) restricts connecting to all “cellular radiotelephone systems” while in the air according to 47 CFR section 22.925:

Cellular telephones installed in or carried aboard airplanes, balloons or any other type of aircraft must not be operated while such aircraft are airborne (not touching the ground). When any aircraft leaves the ground, all cellular telephones on board that aircraft must be turned off.

This rule is why cell phones and tablets have an “airplane” mode, which disables the cellular connection to comply with FCC rules. It does not, however, disable selfie-taking capability.

Since connecting to a cellular data network while in the air is not an option, do be wary of succumbing to get-home-itis in that rush to post the perfect picture. Adding filters and hashtags is much easier on the ground anyway. #FlySafe

Sharing photos of your flights with family and friends is a great way to bolster a positive relationship between the public and general aviation community. Keep flying fun, but keep it safe. Preflight your selfie gear and plan for photo ops.

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