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Dreams of the World: 40 Years Roaming the Skies with Gene Payson

Dreams of the World: One Dream a Time. This post is the latest in the series Dreams of the World, which profiles interesting people Kike meets during his travels. Drones and Small Unmanned Aerial Systems Special Series.  ¨My dream is to be a photographer like Kike Calvo!¨ said Gene Payson, President of Troy Built Models.  ¨Second to that, I enjoy all aspects...

Dreams of the World: One Dream a Time. This post is the latest in the series Dreams of the World, which profiles interesting people Kike meets during his travels. Drones and Small Unmanned Aerial Systems Special Series

¨My dream is to be a photographer like Kike Calvo!¨ said Gene Payson, President of Troy Built Models.  ¨Second to that, I enjoy all aspects of unmanned systems, land, sea and air. I enjoy the development and operation of new systems, as well as teaching others how to operate the systems. Being a UAV trainer gives me the opportunity to do all of these as I develop new courses for sUAS, which are on the cutting edge of technology. I learn about new systems, refine them, and implement them into new courses. So I am living my dream being a sUAS trainer.¨

Gene Payson by KIKE CALVO
Gene Payson, President of Troy Built Models and the director of small unmanned aircraft pilot training at the Unmanned Vehicle University. Photo © KIKE CALVO

Payson, 57, is also the director of small unmanned aircraft pilot training at the Unmanned Vehicle University. He has over 25,000 hours and 40 years of experience with remotely piloted, radio controlled and small UAVs. He is an expert in the design, manufacturing and piloting of large Remote Controlled and small Unmanned Aircrafts. Payson is also involved in systems engineering, power plant engineering, electrical and electronic system development, and market analysis.

¨I believe the market will explode with new uses for drones after the FAA establishes safety rules,¨ said Payson.  ¨When computers were invented, the internet and smart phones were not even a dream. The same will happen with drone use. We can’t even imagine the major uses of drones at this time. Safety is key to strong growth.

Payson is passionate about teaching. ¨I developed a comprehensive course for basic training of sUAS students,¨ said Payson. I teach the course, and I train other UVU trainers to lecture using the same methods. I plan to develop other sUAS courses in the future.¨

¨My students are about 75% men,¨said Payson. ¨With ages ranging from 20 – 58 years old, some have jobs and are looking for career changes to something more fun. Others are out of work and looking for an exciting job that pays well. ¨

¨Different students have different aptitudes,¨ said Payson. I find that LOS flight is generally the most difficult skill for pilots to acquire proficiency. This takes hundreds of hours of training. Younger people who played video games at an early age have actually learned to fly LOS at the same time. They have built up hours of training at a young age without realizing it.¨

¨The most challenging students are those who are old like me, said Payson.  ¨They did not grow up playing video games. I learned to fly RC planes at a young age so I was fortunate to learn the hand eye coordination skills the old fashioned way. I experienced crash and burn in real life. I could not hit the reset button on my video game. I had to fix and repair every day I flew. It was frustrating and expensive.¨

Older students can take full advantage of flight simulators to make learning much faster – especially if they never played a video game before. ¨I was proud to see several older students with no prior experience become fairly competent pilots at the end of the three days of training¨ he explained.

Payson graduated with a BSME from University of Illinois in Champagne in 1978. He has co-authored three books about drones:

  • How to Start an Unmanned Aircraft Vehicle (UAV) Business Course on DVD
  • Drone Entrepreneurship: 30 Businesses You Can Start
  • Introduction to Unmanned Systems: Air, Ground, Sea & Space: Technologies and Commercial Applications (Volume 1)

¨One of the most common mistakes I see when people begin flying small drones,¨ said Payson ¨is confidence that equipment will not fail. I see many first time fliers without enough training to accommodate system failures. ¨

Beginners should probably read these two books:

  • Model Aircraft Aerodynamics
  • Getting Started in Radio Control Airplanes: The Complete Beginner’s Guide

A good first step to being a competent drone pilot is to first become a competent RC hobby pilot. Learning the ins and outs of all the components including airframes, servos, wireless communications, repairs maintenance, use of checklists, and basic flight parameters can be accomplished by becoming an RC pilot.

Regarding gear for beginners, Payson believes the DJI Phantom and the Hubsan SpyHawk are great to start with. He describes these models as easy to fly due to their onboard stabilization and the fact that they can be flown line of sight or first person view.

When asked about FAA regulations he believes sUAS regulations should be left to the states in a similar fashion to the way driver’s licenses are managed. ¨The FAA should only regulate large UAS,¨ said Payson. ¨The FAA is undermanned, and the job is huge. I believe that the FAA is doing the best they can, but there are not enough resources for them to be effective and react quickly.¨

Three unusual facts people probably are not aware when it comes to drones:

  •  Very unusual designs have been made to fly, such as the flying lawnmower and the flying witch.
  •  There are some extremely large RC planes
  •  The world’s fastest RC airplane at 399mph is not a jet, but a glider with no engine! Jets are just about as fast.

Recommendations for anyone interested in becoming familiar with RC:

  • Get insurance. The most popular insurance available for modelers is through the AMA. It offers $2.5 million in insurance.
  • Inexpensive cars are best to start acquiring skills. Then you can graduate to boats or planes. Planes are the least durable, so building skills on cars first is very helpful.

¨When students finish a three-day course a three-day course, ¨said Payson. ¨They should have a great foundation to start practicing and using robots for commercial purposes. But becoming a pro takes practice. ¨


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Learn More: RC modeling

Air Age Getting Started in Backyard Flying Guide

Radio Control Foam Modelling

R/C Pilot’s Handbook: Basic to Advanced Flying Techniques from the Pros: Basic to Advanced Flying Techniques from the Pros

Flying Radio-Controlled Model Aircraft

Building & Flying Radio Controlled Model Aircraft: Fourth Edition

Aircraft Workshop: Learn To Make Models That Fly (Learn to Make Models)

RCadvisor’s Model Airplane Design Made Easy: The Simple Guide to Designing R/C Model Aircraft or Build Your Own Radio Control Flying Model Plane


Additional Readings: 

Cool stuff for Drone and Unmanned Vehicle enthusiasts

Drone Entrepreneurship: 30 Businesses You Can Start

Small Unmanned Aircraft: Theory and Practice

Introduction to Unmanned Systems: Air, Ground, Sea & Space

UAV Fundamentals Executive Course

How to Start an Unmanned Aircraft Vehicle (UAV) Business Course on DVD

Small UAV Construction

Getting Started with Hobby Quadcopters and Drones: Learn about, buy and fly these amazing aerial vehicles

Military Robots and Drones: A Reference Handbook (Contemporary World Issues)

The Media Source Presents Drones: Are They Watching You? Magazine

Introduction to Unmanned Aircraft Systems

Rise of the Drones II: Examining the Legality of Unmanned Targeting: One Hundred Eleventh Congress, Second Session, April 28, 2010

Drone Pilot (Cool Careers)

Fly by Wire Aircraft: Fighters, Drones, and Airliners

Introduction to Remote Sensing, Fifth Edition

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Kike Calvo
Award-winning photographer, journalist, and author Kike Calvo (pronounced key-keh) specializes in culture and environment. He has been on assignment in more than 90 countries, working on stories ranging from belugas in the Arctic to traditional Hmong costumes in Laos. Kike is pioneering in using small unmanned aerial systems to produce aerial photography as art, and as a tool for research and conservation. He is also known for his iconic photographic project, World of Dances, on the intersection of dance, nature, and architecture. His work has been published in National Geographic, New York Times, Time, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair, among others. Kike teaches photography workshops and has been a guest lecturer at leading institutions like the School of Visual Arts and Yale University. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic blog Voices. He has authored nine books, including Drones for Conservation; So You Want to Create Maps Using Drones?; Staten Island: A Visual Journey to the Lighthouse at the End of the World; and Habitats, with forewords by David Doubilet and Jean-Michel Cousteau. Kike’s images have been exhibited around the world, and are represented by the National Geographic Image Collection. Kike was born in Spain and is based in New York. When he is not on assignment, he is making gazpacho following his grandmother’s Andalusian recipe. You can travel to Colombia with Kike: