Squadron Leader Gary James, the Station Flight Safety Officer (SFSO) at RAF Shawbury, has been awarded the prestigious LG Groves Flight Safety on the Ground Award.

Sqn Ldr Gary James, Station Flight Safety Officer (SFSO) at RAF Shawbury
Sqn Ldr Gary James, Station Flight Safety Officer (SFSO) at RAF Shawbury

This national award was created by Major and Mrs Keith Groves in 1946, in memory of their son Sgt Louis Grimble Groves, who was killed while flying on a meteorological sortie in September 1945.

Squadron Leader James was awarded the LG Groves Award for his drone awareness campaign, which has educated, informed and changed the behaviour, and perceptions of drone users. Squadron Leader James is an advocate for the use of drones and positively encourages their use but is extremely conscious of the requirement for them to be used safely and with consideration to other airspace users and members of the public.

Earlier this year, a Squirrel helicopter from the Defence Helicopter Flying School (DHFS), RAF Shawbury flew within 100 feet of an unidentified Remotely Piloted Aerial System (RPAS) or drone. The 5ft wide drone was being flown adjacent to the airfield and the pilot did not see the drone until the last moment, when he took evasive action to avoid a mid-air collision. There have also been other drones flown on the airfield boundary.

Recently, there have been a number of media articles concerning the increase in drone use and near misses at international airports. As the purchase cost of a drone decreases, their availability and use is increasing in both the commercial and private sectors, and so is the risk to the aviation industry and military airspace users.

Sqn Ldr James has recognised the potential threat and has been actively promoting the safe use of drones for the last 4 years through a proactive drone awareness community engagement campaign in Shropshire. The aim is to increase awareness and understanding of the CAA’s Drone Code in Low Flying Area 9 (Shropshire and surrounding areas) and training all Shawbury-based aircrew to be alert to the dangers of drones.

This campaign has included ground-breaking work with the National Centre of Precision Farming (NCPF), Harper Adams University. Given the size and slow speed of a drone, it is very difficult for pilots to see them. Agricultural drones are being used at lower levels; they are designed to work just above crop height to disperse seeds or pesticides and to analyse the soil. Therefore, a key objective is to improve the visibility of drones to reduce the risk of collision, as there is currently no regulation regarding the colour of drones. The first airborne visibility test, involving an agricultural drone and an RAF helicopter, was carried out in September 2016 and proved that colour combinations and lighting are important in increasing visibility from the air. The results of the test have been passed to the regulatory authorities, so that the visibility of drones can be improved; if the optimal colour scheme can be mandated at the point of manufacture; this could deliver immediate safety benefits.

Squadron Leader James said: “Stakeholder engagement has been a key part of this campaign, but the target audience is huge. In November 2016, the National Air Traffic Services (NATS) and the CAA jointly launched a website containing a Drone Code for users, designed to ensure that drone users in the UK can easily access the information they need to fly their drones safely and legally, without endangering others.”

He added: “The rapid growth of the drone industry, combined with a large and diverse user group, has brought a unique challenge to the aviation industry and the military. Education of stakeholders is crucial in raising the awareness of users and informing them about the regulation and where and how they can fly their drone safely.”