Pilot Spotlight: Kori Elektra - The Earthly Vagabond in the American Samoa
I got my first drone just a few days before take-off. An arctic white DJI Mavic Air – cute as a bug. I’d never flown a drone before, but I certainly wasn’t going to let that deter me…
I’d already checked the rules for flying in American Samoa: flying is allowed, but not near airports or military installations. Easy enough.
Plenty of extra batteries? Check. Compact case that holds all the equipment and fits easily in my backpack? Check. Ample practice flying before taking it on the road?
S!*%. There just wasn’t enough time. The drone was released just a few days before departure. The Fly More bundle wasn’t even available yet, so I had to desperately hunt around to find to even find a seller with extra batteries. So, I only got a few minutes of practice before packing her up and whisking her off to the airport. I decided it didn’t matter. I told myself: I’m an intelligent girl - I can figure this out.
First up, a stop in Maui on the way to Samoa. I decided to bring it out on the beach. It was a total bust. The drone needed another update (they seemed to be endless in those first few days) and it wanted to recalibrate…If you haven’t been through this yet, get ready. It seems to be required on every session. The drone gives you instructions – rotate the aircraft horizontally 360 degrees, and then vertically 360 degrees…This was my first time encountering this, and though I was following the instructions, it still took a few tries. And finally, after all that, there just wasn’t enough bandwidth on the beach for the millionth update I needed (f*@$!). I had to give it up.
Next stop was the big island, Hawaii. My stay here was super short, and it was pouring rain and super windy the entire time. Not ideal for droning. Never even pulled my little bug out of the bag…sigh…
Finally, American Samoa!
The first lesson I learned came quickly - pulling out a drone in a third world environment is the fastest way to get literally EVERYBODY’s attention. I wanted to be slick and nonchalant but it’s just not possible, so fumbling through this recalibration process again was absolutely agonizing. There I was, picking it up, turning it around, setting it down, picking it up, rotating it…I could feel all eyes on me every time. I’d see little kids pointing at me from the corner of my eye and try to appear unaffected, but on the inside, I just wanted to crawl under a rock. As a girl who works hard to slip by unnoticed in life I was desperately uncomfortable with the attention I was getting.
But alas! My persistence paid off. I’d gotten the drone into the air. Great, I thought. All I have to do now is make it fly in the direction I intend! And herein lies my second issue - I cannot tell you how many times I pushed on the joystick and watched the drone immediately buzz off in the opposite direction I’d intended.
Despite these minor mishaps getting started, droning in American Samoa was rad! The territory is made up of 3 main islands. The largest, Tutuila, is the most populated and most developed. So, for this adventure, we decided to head to Ofu island, which is much smaller and more remote. It’s also insanely beautiful. The beaches here are nearly untouched by humans – the silky white sand glimmers in the sun, the water is crystal clear turquoise and teeming with life. There are over 250 species of coral here and over 950 species of fish (that’s more than twice the species you'll find in Hawaii!). Giant jet-black lava boulders protrude on the beach and the backdrop on land is lush emerald-green jungle. I don’t think I could’ve found a more incredible spot on Earth!
Full disclosure: What I didn’t realize at the time, is that much of my flight took place over the national park beach, and droning is not allowed at national parks. In August 2014 The National Park Service made it illegal to launch, land, or operate unmanned aircraft under 36 CFR 1.5 (this law basically gives NPS the complete authority set and eliminate limits on public use within the parks, like a ban on flying drones). I didn’t know this at the time, and only found out later – don’t make this mistake when you drone.
It’s important to check more than just general guidelines for your destination. Check specific sites where you plan to launch your drone on AirMap – it’s free and easy to use and it’s the best way to avoid a ticket or a fine on your trip.
I had two successful afternoon flights and one during sunset on Ofu before returning to Tutuila for one last day. I decided to fly one more time there, but I was at the hotel and had already returned the rental car and I needed to pack for my flight so I didn’t want to walk down to the beach. The location was beautiful though, and I was eager to fly, so I decided I’d fly right off my hotel room balcony.
Taking off from the balcony wasn’t too difficult, aside from again capturing the attention of every human within a half-mile radius. I was able to jet off the balcony, fly over the hotel and glide over open ocean once again. The bay here was much less windy than the beach on Ofu, and I’d had no trouble at all taking off from the balcony, so I felt much more relaxed and confident now.
So, naturally the gods of technology saw fit to kick me down a couple of pegs! When it was time to land her, I found it to be much more difficult than take off. To do it, I’d have to bring the drone in over the partition wall and set her down in the center of the balcony to avoid the wooden slats. And this is where the trouble began…
I realized I wasn’t so confident after all, so I decided to try to take the easy way out – use the Return to Home feature. Obviously, there’d been enough space between the drone and the balcony walls for an easy take off. Return to Home is supposed to return the drone to the point of takeoff - perfect!
Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite that simple. The drone returned but it was slightly askew from where it had taken off from. It was too close to the partition wall. It hovered there, halfway between the ground and the top of the partition, alarms blaring, props whirring, whipping the wind into my face. In the tiny space of an enclosed balcony the buzzing was incredibly loud and echoing. Here I was again – ALL EYES ON ME! I was instantly overwhelmed and flustered; I could feel my face and ears turn beet red and I was starting to stress-sweat
There were suddenly a lot of voices – adults yelling, little kids shouting. And then a young girl somewhere below me couldn’t take anymore. She screamed a blood-curdling scream…seriously, the girl has a bright future in horror films.
Remember that issue I mentioned, where I move the joystick intending to the move the drone one direction and she takes off in the opposite direction? It was rearing its ugly head again!
I pulled the joystick to bring her closer to the center, but apparently, I was urging her backward. She didn’t move – just continued to hover in place, sounding the alarm. Then the scream. That scream did me in! It made me jump and, in a panic, I just decided to force the thing down. A back prop clipped the wall and that was my beautiful new drone's first crash-landing…certainly didn’t take long…smh.
Luckily, only a prop was damaged. I’ve flown a few times since and there appears to be no issues from that minor collision. Not too bad for a beginner, eh? And I’m happy to report, I’ve gotten much better at flying since then, and much less concerned with the attention it draws. And that’s good news, because I've got big plans for this little bug.
Kori's on a mission to see the world and do good for the Earth and inspire YOU to do the same! Since 2016 she's visited 6 continents! Along the way she's hiked the Inca Trail, chased waterfalls and the Northern Lights in the Arctic, island-hopped on a pirate boat in Asia, explored incredible coral reefs in Oceania and stand-up paddle boarded in Antarctica! Don't ask her to pick her favorite adventure - it's impossible to choose!