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From Cockpit To Controller: Former Pilot Finds A New Way To Fly

Mar 5, 2018

On a recent sunny afternoon at a solar farm outside Philadelphia, Pa., commercial drone pilots Tony Zimlich and Gunner Goldie are preparing for flight.

Dressed in hard hats and matching yellow vests, they run through a series of safety and equipment checks, and survey the surrounding terrain and airspace, before picking up what looks like a pair of oversized video game controllers. Then, with a streak of beeps and whirs, their drone — about the size of a milk crate — rises steadily into the sky above.

Their mission: to carefully sweep the skyline above the solar farm, taking photographs and gathering data to help their client identify defective solar panels and guide repairs.

"We can do something in 30 minutes which takes two-and-a-half days for a two-man team to inspect," Zimlich says.

That efficiency, Zimlich says, is just one of the reasons that the commercial drone industry is taking off. As drone technology has improved and gotten cheaper over the past decade, it's expanded from military and private hobbyist markets into the commercial and civic marketplace.

Drones are now being deployed to help with emergency response, agriculture, construction, insurance, real estate and infrastructural inspection, in addition to ongoing efforts to develop drone-based delivery systems by companies like Amazon. Goldman Sachs estimates that the civil and commercial drone sector will grow to a $13 billion industry by 2020.

Tony Zimlich didn't expect to be a part of that transition. Unlike many of his younger colleagues, who got their start playing video games and flying remote control aircraft, Zimlich cut his teeth in the cockpit of a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter. Part of his military tenure was spent flying medical evacuation missions above the deserts and valleys of Afghanistan.

Zimlich says that his work as a military pilot was emotionally challenging, but also deeply rewarding. He says that knowing that his decisions could mean life or death for his fellow soldiers helped him tune out the sounds of incoming fire or wind whistling through bullet holes in the aircraft's fuselage. "Weather didn't matter. Gunfire didn't matter," Zimlich says. "Our sole purpose was to get injured soldiers off the battlefield."

When Zimlich made the decision to retire after nearly 20 years in the military, he says that he assumed that finding good paying work as a civilian would be relatively easy. However, after a cursory job search, he realized that he wasn't qualified for many of the better paying positions in civilian aviation, and that he would have to broaden his search in order to support his family.

"I had two kids at the time, so I had mouths to feed. I had bills to pay," he says. "It was really scary when I realized that I needed a job and I don't have any skill set other than flying."

So Zimlich turned to his military colleagues, several of whom suggested that he adapt his skill set and find work piloting unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, for a military contractor. At first, Zimlich was hesitant to make the switch. Coming from an aviation background, he viewed drone pilots with a mixture of skepticism and sarcasm.

"In my mind it was the geek squad," Zimlich says, "a bunch of gamers sitting around a console, chatting it up. And I really didn't think that a drone operator could ever be as proficient as a glamorous helicopter pilot."

But when one of his former colleagues explained the work and recommended him for a position as a contract drone pilot, flying surveillance missions for a military contractor in Afghanistan, he decided to give it shot.

Zimlich says that, at first, going from the cockpit to the controller was a strange transition. Remote piloting lacked the sense of physical feedback and exhilaration that came from being in flight.

"But, I didn't really miss it a whole lot," Zimlich says, "because people weren't shooting at me. So, that was a trade off I was willing to make."

After learning the ropes as a military contract pilot, he began to explore the nascent world of commercial drone work. Thanks to recommendations from other military colleagues who had transitioned into the commercial drone industry, Zimlich landed his current position as the lead vertical pilot at a commercial drone startup called Measure, based in Washington, D.C.

Now, at age 40, Zimlich spends much of the year traveling the country, conducting drone-powered inspections of solar farms, wind turbines and cell phone tower networks. He also helps train and coordinate the company's pilot staff.

While Zimlich says he does miss the exhilaration of lifting off the ground in the pilot's seat, he considers himself lucky to have found a way to adapt his aviation skills and to have found a place on the ground floor of a burgeoning industry.

"I think it's a combination of luck, good choices and military friendships," he says. "And now I'm able to repay that favor by recommending veterans that I knew in the Army."

NPR producer Franziska Monahan contributed to the audio version of this story.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now it's time for our series Brave New Workers. That's where we hear from people adapting to the changing economy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TONY ZIMLICH: I need a job, and I don't have a skill set other than flying.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: One day, you might be cleaning a toilet. The next day, you might be doing some potentially Nobel Prize-winning science.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: In 1979, I started my trucking career, and I wanted to have the American dream.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: We're going to begin today outside of Philadelphia in a field filled with rows of solar panels.

ZIMLICH: Oh, yeah. It's a solar farm.

MARTIN: That's Tony Zimlich. He's wearing a hard hat and a bright yellow vest. And he's holding what looks like a particularly fancy video game controller.

ZIMLICH: When we turn the aircraft on, you'll hear a (imitating drone motor).

(SOUNDBITE OF DRONE MOTOR)

MARTIN: And with that sound, a shoebox-sized drone rises into the sky. Zimlich guides the drone carefully hundreds of feet over the solar farm, taking photos and gathering data that will be used to identify defective solar panels and guide repairs.

ZIMLICH: We can do something in 30 minutes which takes 2 1/2 days for a two-man team to inspect.

Let's start going north to south.

MARTIN: That efficiency, Zimlich says, is one of the many reasons the commercial drone industry is taking off. And it's given him the opportunity to build a second career. Unlike many of his younger colleagues, who he says learn to fly playing video games and flying remote-control helicopters, Tony Zimlich learned his trade with the real thing in the cockpit of a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter above the deserts and valleys of Afghanistan.

ZIMLICH: Medevac in Afghanistan is a rewarding and emotionally challenging job.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIOHEAD'S "HUNTING BEARS")

ZIMLICH: You want to always be busy, as a pilot, on a mission, but when you're flying medevac, the busier you are, that means the worse things are. Anytime somebody called for a medevac, we went no matter what. Weather didn't matter. Gunfire didn't matter. Our sole purpose was to get injured soldiers off the battlefield.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIOHEAD'S "HUNTING BEARS")

ZIMLICH: Being in a position where you're getting shot at is remarkably anticlimactic. I mean, you hear the chaos going around. But you're so focused on doing the task at hand, you don't even realize until after the fact, and you're on your way, and you hear a really weird whistling noise from wind coming through bullet holes in the rotor blades or the fuselage. You just don't worry about it. And your only focus is making sure that the injured soldier gets back until you get on the ground, and you're like, oh, man, I really should not have made it on that one.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIOHEAD'S "HUNTING BEARS")

ZIMLICH: When I made the decision to retire, I romantically thought that I'm just going to get out and fly helicopters and live this pilot's dream. However, I quickly realized that that's not necessarily the case. When I started looking at civilian flying jobs, I was hit with the realization that I didn't have enough experience to get some of the higher-paying jobs. You know, I had two kids at the time, so I had mouths to feed. I had bills to pay. And so it was really scary when I realized that I need a job, and I don't have a skill set other than flying.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZIMLICH: So I had been looking for work, and started utilizing my military network and called a friend of mine who I had heard through the rumor mill was doing drone work. He explained what he was doing. I thought it sounded interesting. It was definitely something new. My initial impressions of drones was basically a mix of skepticism and sarcasm. In my mind, it was the geek squad, a bunch of gamers sitting around a console, chatting it up and not really being the consummate aviation professionals that, you know, I am or was used to working with. And I really didn't think that a drone operator could ever be as proficient as a glamorous helicopter pilot.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZIMLICH: A friend of mine called and asked me if I was interested in being a part of a startup. And I said, OK, what's the startup? And he said, well, I can't tell you, but trust me, just say yes. I did. And that startup was a commercial drone company.

All right, motor start.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRONE MOTOR)

ZIMLICH: The transition from flying helicopters to drones was definitely different. You don't have any seat-of-the-pants feeling. Everything you do is visual. But I didn't really miss it a whole lot because people weren't shooting at me, so that was a trade-off I was willing to make.

We've got a total of two separate missions. One's a thermal orthomosaic. And we'll fly with this camera here.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMERA SHUTTER)

ZIMLICH: Essentially, we are field technicians. Our job is not behind a desk. It is out in the field - hard hats, work boots, cold-weather clothing and a yellow vest. I mean, we're out there the same as any other technician is, except for we're using the drone to conduct inspections in lieu of climbing a tower or in a bucket truck.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRONE MOTOR)

ZIMLICH: As far as how everything fell into place, I think it's a combination of luck, good choices and military friendships. The friends that I made in the military got me the job. And now I'm able to repay back that favor by recommending veterans that I knew in the army.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: That's Tony Zimlich. He is a commercial drone pilot and instructor. He spoke to us for our series Brave New Workers - stories of workers adapting to a changing economy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.