Commercial SUA Pilot training – UK

Several years back I got interested in drones (Small Unmanned Aircraft) or SUSA’s (Small Unmanned Surveillance Aircraft) as they’re officially known. Unfortunately I wasn’t in a position to do anything until 2018. In that February I was laid low by a very nasty bout of pneumonia that had me bed-locked for three weeks. During this time I did a lot of reading, watching YouTube and generally getting the notion that it would make a cool backup career if the autonomous vehicles fell through.

Later that month a shiny DJI Phantom 4 Pro came along and at the same time I managed to secure access to a huge area of farm land right outside where I work for flight practice. Then, after a fair bit of practice and on-line reading I decided to book a course to start down the road towards a ‘PfCO’ – Permission for Commercial Operations. After looking around, I decided to book through Heliguy and chose Farnborough as the site of choice as it’s the closest. That done, I just had to count down the days until the course began. Here’s a brief breakdown of what’s done to gain the PfCO.

This is done in three stage:

  1. Three day ground school – Air Law/Navigation and Operating procedures with an exam at the end of day three –  Passed at Farnborough in late May 2018
  2. Then put together an ‘Operations Manual’ – the book that will outline every aspect of how you will operate when this is signed off – Completed late October 2018
  3. The Practical Flight Assessment. A pass or fail set of exercises carried out in accordance with the Ops manual – Passed at Farnborough– late October 2018. Bear in mind that this is assessment is carried out as though it were a real project with the examiner playing the client. So consider what extra items (and cost)  you will need to operate successfully – tabards, hard hats, cones, signs, landing pad etc. It all adds up!

After all this, the Ops manual should contain the following documents;

  • Ground School Pass Certificate
  • Ops manual certificate of recommendation to the CAA
  • Practical Flight Assessment Pass Certificate
  • Commercial insurance compliant with EC 785/2004

Now the whole lot is submitted through the CAA on-line application form that costs the princely sum of £173 (Oct 2018). Then a few days later, as long as everything is OK, you will receive a very underwhelming (but oh so important!) email with your PfCO certificate attached.

  • PfCO granted by CAA – end of October 2018

This is then added to your Ops Manual, the version and revision history updated and finally you are a duly authorised Commercial Drone operator!


Due to pending changes in the Air Navigation Order and rules regarding drones, I held off proceeding further through June/July 2018 until they were in place, then beavered away on the Ops manual in August/September/October. In reality if I’d cracked on from the start I probably would have had the PfCO a few month earlier. However I wasn’t in a rush and besides, one of the benefits of waiting was that under the rule changes, the standard permission I was issued relates to drones up to 20Kg rather than 7Kg as it used to be!

Role on 2020 ……

Well doesn’t time fly … it only seems a nod and a wink ago that the PfCO was issued but in reality it was renewed in October 2019 (no issues with the CAA). Of course, as I write this update, we’re in the middle of Covid-19 and lock-down in the UK. This has had an impact on everyone and everything including the CAA and EASA (European Union Aviation Safety Agency) and the proposed change in regulations that should happen on 1st July 2020. Now it appears this has been pushed back by both organisations with the CAA holding off until 1st November 2020 before taking any further action.

What does this mean? Well for me, it means that the PfCO I hold will need to be renewed in October as the new GVC (General Visual Line of Sight Certificate) qualification won’t be active by then. It also means that the recently acquired GVC ground school certificate will sit in the draw gathering dust until such time as (a) lockdown eases and I can complete the flight test and (b) the CAA decides on a way forward into 2021.

In reality, I’m not even sure I had to go down the re-qualification route. I’ve heard that PfCO’s renewed after the change-over date will be issued as an ‘Operational Authorisation’ anyway … however, should I miss an annual renewal by even so much as one day, I would lose the PfCO and have to start all over again to get a GVC. Hence, doing it now to avoid possible hassle further down the line.