Featured NewsTrending NewsPilots StoriesPilot’s Story: Terry Stafford


22 May 2024

By Terry Stafford

I’ve always loved photography. I started with a Polaroid camera my mother gave me when I was about 12. I’ve also always loved flying. I got my private pilot license at the Langley Air Force Base flying club while serving in the Navy at Norfolk Naval Base around 1980.

One of the most exciting assignments I had in the Navy was aboard the aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower. I was an Operations Specialist and one of my jobs was that of an Air Intercept Controller in the Combat Information Center. Everything I did throughout those years was surrounded by aviation. I loved it.

One of the only times my wife flew with me in a Cessna 172 was in 1989, when we flew from Huntsville, Alabama to Murray, Kentucky to get our marriage license. Shortly after that, we were married at my mother’s house near Murray. It was shortly after that when I stopped flying. It was just too darn expensive.

Around 2015, I started reading and watching YouTube videos about drones. The more I learned, the more I realized I could combine my love for flying with my passion for photography. Because of my flying experience, passing the Part 107 exam was a piece of cake.

I learned much about agricultural flying from another drone pilot and friend here in California. Living in the Central Valley—the most agriculturally rich area of the entire country—it seemed like it would be the most in-demand niche. A no brainer. I got into multi-spectral imaging for crop health. I flew many missions in nut and citrus orchards to capture pre-harvest tree health. It was fun, but physically demanding. I had two DJI Phantom 4 Pro drones at the time—one with a very expensive multi-spectral camera. I had an Air 2 as a backup for basic RGB work.

I was a bit surprised at just how demanding ag flying was. Driving my truck through hundreds of acres of orchards, I had to stop every few rows to fly a short nadir mission checking the tops of the trees. When you’re flying in the middle of an orchard, it doesn’t take long to get out of range of the controller. Keeping it all line-of-sight was literally out of the question. Of course, I would never recommend breaking that law to anyone, but it was just me and the trees for miles and filing for a waiver was quite a bit harder back in those days.

I crashed the Phantoms a few times, and broke the landing gear once on one of them. Luckily, the multi-spectral camera wasn’t installed for those missions. I learned from those crashes that I couldn’t be launching from the bed of my pickup, as convenient as it was. The metal in the truck disrupted the magnetic compass in the drone on startup. I figured that out pretty quickly.

Getting in and out of the truck and setting up each time to launch and land the drone from a pad the 20 or 30 times I ran a mission each day wore me down. Hand launching a Phantom 4 Pro isn’t as easy as an Air 2s or one of the minis. So I used a round pad to keep the drone out of the dust in the floor of the orchard. With all that and driving a couple hours each way to the farm, at the end of flying those missions three or four times a week for a few months, my back was shot. It paid well, but I just didn’t have the stick-to-it-iveness to keep going. I turned the contract over to another pilot friend of mine. It was a win for everyone concerned.

After I determined that I wouldn’t be able to stick with heavy-duty agricultural work, I sold out to my drone friend, thinking I was over it. To say I was frustrated and disappointed would be an understatement. I lost my behind on that sale. But it was a good deal for him. A really good deal.

But even after all that, a couple of years ago, I realized I was far from over it. I picked up a new (at the time) DJI Air 2s and, more recently, a Mini 4 Pro. I’m back in the game for the love of the art. I still love capturing images and the technical aspects of flying and business. I couldn’t just not do it. So where would I go with it?

I spent most of my career after the Navy as a project manager for NASA contractors at both the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama and Kennedy Space Center in Florida. I loved overseeing the progress of many spacecraft processing facility projects. Even as a kid, I loved watching things being built. My earliest memories are of me digging in the dirt with a tablespoon on the side of a hill near my house. Building things is what I enjoy—watching the progress and achieving the final product. I even had a wood shop for many years where I built small projects and repaired furniture as a hobby.

In hindsight, I guess I should have been a construction project manager. But watching big, pointy, metal things launch into space was pretty cool, too. Again, putting all that together, I realized that providing construction progression documentation and inspection services would be the next best step for my drone career. Since working my way into that niche, I haven’t felt any physical limitations. I can see doing it for many years to come.

I’ve thought about entering the real estate fray, but it seems like agents can’t really afford to pay anything, or they’re flying drones themselves that they picked up at BestBuy. Part 107 be damned.

Once I convinced myself I wasn’t too old, I freshened up my website, started a YouTube channel to feature some of my work, and recently learned about The Droning Company. What a neat idea! I’m now all in, and I look forward to helping people put their best foot forward to impress their clients and customers. I also look forward to helping other drone pilots achieve their goals.

I continue to practice flying my drones and working with my go-to autonomous flight software, Dronelink (on the Air 2s anyway). I also still love to watch other operators on YouTube to learn new ways to work smarter. My ears are always to the ground looking for that better mousetrap.

My plan is to stay focused on construction progress monitoring deliverables, and perhaps some marketing gigs with the occasional basic roof inspection or farm art imagery. I always want to stay open to client ideas. People often ask for something I hadn’t even thought of—such as inspecting the inside loft of an old barn or taking a video of a herd of dairy cattle in a pen waiting to be fed. Sometimes it’s for corporate or insurance documentation, and sometimes it’s simply to hang a framed picture on the dining room wall.

I captured the 50th anniversary World Ag-Expo at the International Agri-Center in Tulare a few years ago. I worked it for three days straight. I still see my photos and videos from time to time on their website or in marketing material. It was a lot of fun.

Shortly after that, I flew a cultural event called PuebloFest at the same location. One thing is for certain in this business—you learn a lot of things and make a lot of new friends.

I was asked once to fly a horse show inside one of the buildings at the Ag-Center. While I said "yes," I was relieved when the show was cancelled. The more I thought about it, the more it felt like a disaster in the making. I would likely have had to turn off obstacle avoidance and GPS to fly. But add to that the risk of spooking the horses in the arena. Again, I was soooo relieved. In hindsight, I don’t think I would entertain such a request again. I’m not sure the insurance company would understand if something went wrong.

In any case, it’s fun, it’s challenging, and it’s rewarding. All that and a little side income, too.

I look forward to engaging with the local droning community to share war stories—both wins and losses.


Excavating in Paradise from Terry Stafford on Vimeo.

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