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INTERVIEW: Mark Wharry leads UAS training at Strat Aero

What triggered your interest in aviation?

Growing up in the 1980s, every little boy wanted to be a fighter pilot. I remember being amazed by the fast jets flying out of Bahrain during the first Gulf War. It was only when I was in my late teens and met an RAF recruiter that I realised it really was an option; someone has to fly those jets. I was sponsored by the RAF through university and completed elementary flying training alongside my studies. Years later, I actually flew one of the exact Tornados I saw in the Gulf War footage when I was 11.

What roles have you enjoyed the most and why?

I was "creamed off" to the Central Flying School for a tour as an instructor during training. I spent nearly three years teaching junior fast jet pilots on the Shorts Tucano T1 at RAF Linton. Despite everything I subsequently flew, the challenge and satisfaction of guiding a student through a long training course and seeing them receive their wings at the end was never equalled. It started a love for and dedication towards aviation training that has stuck with me.

What attracted you to working for Strat Aero?

SA approaches the gaps in unmanned air systems (UAS) flying and training from a sensible angle. I could see that some civil aviation authority, national qualified entities (NQEs) providing small UAS flying training were engaged in a race to the bottom – seeing how much they could trim out, and how low they could push their prices to attract as many students as possible. In building the AUTQ course, SA wanted to produce someone who could work at Geocurve, SA's wholly-owned specialist survey company. Basic courses simply didn't provide enough to start someone on their commercial journey. I clicked rapidly with the other senior staff and the board, and I knew we had very similar attitudes towards training and the expansion of the UAS world.

What does your job entail?

I run everything connected with training at SA. I administer the team who control the day-to-day running of our learning management, operational management and logbook systems, and act as nominal chief instructor for our franchisees across the world. For larger UAS projects, I’m the lead for operational, training, standardisation and examining issues.

What challenges do you face?

With activities running between the west of the USA and Taiwan on the other side of the world, sometimes I have to keep very unusual hours! As the UAS world expands, I’ve also found that explaining the capability and structure of some of the systems can prove difficult. Trying to educate people in the opportunities offered by these systems beyond simple photography is often tricky.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I love being an advocate for UAS – from the smallest micro-drones, through to hobbyist and “prosumer” aircraft, right up to our higher-end work for MALE RPAS. I sit on working groups that develop formal standards for UAS training, and I passionately believe that we as an industry can develop a suitable set of regulations and standards that will make it easier for us all to share the skies, for fun or for profit, in the future.

How is the UAS sector evolving?

The level of automation and simplicity built into a modern SUAS will help increase adoption rates. The technology that drives decision-making and error correction in self-driving cars has a lot in common with UAS flight control, and I see a lot of crossovers coming. Looking to the future of extended and beyond visual line of sight flying, businesses that use UAS increasingly need to treat their pilots like real aviators. Already, being a UAS pilot is a professional job, not a secondary role, and I see that expanding more. Everyone will continue to need higher levels of training, understanding and standardisation to ensure the UK’s airspace can safely absorb the expanding numbers of UAS. Those of us working in the industry are lucky to have the opportunity to shape it as it develops.

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