Pilot Spotlight: Interview with Sarah Sabatke
Missouri School of Journalism
Tell us about yourself. I’m a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism, part of the University of Missouri in Columbia, Mo. I am about to begin my final year in the documentary journalism program, which includes producing my own documentary short film. I’m drawn to character-driven stories on issues that affect the lives of everyday people.
I first experienced the use of drones in the fall of 2017 and have been experimenting with their applicability to journalism (and beyond) ever since. When I’m not working on my graduate coursework, I am either flying drones (commercially or for the University of Missouri) or teaching fellow students how to fly and get licensed.
What inspired you to begin flying drones, and what made you want to enter the industry as a drone pilot?
I’ve always loved watching drone videography that immerses viewers in far away landscapes with unbelievable views online. A YouTube search for “Alaska drone video” could entertain me for hours. The ability to see places I have traveled to (and some I might never be able to visit) in a way that had been inaccessible to humans still blows my mind.
I wanted to be able to capture beautiful places in a different way, both for my own personal enjoyment (and use in filmmaking) and to use in my journalism career to show the public a new way of looking at familiar surroundings. Drones were also a much more economical and accessible option for me to create cinematic and aerial material for my own projects rather than, say, using a helicopter.
What were you doing before you started flying drones, and what made you make the transition?
Before I began to explore the world of drones, I relied on more traditional tech like DSLRs and the occasional 360 camera for both my journalism work and personal photography. I was introduced to drones by my professor and mentor, Judd Slivka, who was the Director of Aerial Journalism at MU.
My first encounter with drones was during the total solar eclipse in August 2017, when I served as a visual observer while a team from our drone journalism program captured the eclipse. When I joined the program, it was originally more of a social activity where I got to learn and fly with friends. Over time, I grew more interested in the technical side of the operation and realized that the ways in which drones could be used in both journalism and documentary filmmaking were endless. I eventually took my Part 107 test and became a licensed pilot.
While I was learning to fly, I was the only female in the program. I loved everyone I worked with, but it was definitely intimidating, and I always felt like I had to work 10 times harder and know as much as I possibly could about all aspects of drone use just to be on the same level.
In 2019, I started teaching students in the flight lab portion of our drone journalism class. I’ve greatly enjoyed watching my students grow from being nervous to hold the controller to flying orbits and figure eights like they’re no big deal. I’ve also been proud to watch some of the women in my class grow comfortable taking the lead when flying and even getting their Part 107 license. As the only female flight instructor for that class, I was happy to play a small part in helping them learn to be confident drone pilots and hopefully enjoy it along the way.
What drones are you currently flying, and what drone accessories do you love?
For teaching and workshop presentations, I use the DJI Phantom 4 Pro. For client work, we fly with either the P4P or the DJI Inspire 2. For personal use, I fly with the DJI Mavic 2 Zoom. I’m most comfortable flying the P4P but like the simplicity of the Mavic’s small size and quick assembly for spontaneous flights.
My must-have accessory for a flight is my DJI Remote Controller Strap, a harness that connects your chest to the controller. An old hand injury makes long flights painful; the strap allows me to loosen my grip on the controller, making it easier to make subtle movements with the drone and making long flights more comfortable.
What is your favorite feature on your drone and why? I’m a big fan of the zoom lens on my Mavic 2 Zoom. Drones traditionally have a wider field of view so the zoom lens allows me to maintain my altitude while narrowing the field of view. It also allows for really visually interesting effects like flying away from a subject while simultaneously zooming in on it — it produces a kaleidoscope-like feel.
What drone images are you most proud of and why?
I'm proud of the drone images I've been able to capture of the University of Missouri campus. I've been able to capture campus from above in all seasons and for special events like the ROTC graduates during their final ceremony and students lining up on the steps of Jesse Hall in their caps and gowns.
Have you learned any valuable lessons from being in the drone industry that you can share with our female drone community?
I am relatively new to the commercial drone industry, but from an educational perspective (drones in an academic environment), I’ve learned a lot about patience and repetition. While doing orbits over and over or weaving through orange cones can seem tedious, I have noticed that, both with my own skill and with my students’, repetition of the basic flight skills leads to better shots in the long run and makes it easier to pick up where you left off if there is a period when you can’t fly.
Whether it's from a creative, commercial or humanitarian perspective, tell us about your most memorable drone flight you have piloted thus far. My most memorable drone flight occurred during a trip to Gasconade, Missouri with my professor and two classmates. I was proud of the team dynamic we had crafted between the four of us and the communication between our pilots and our visual observers (we took turns rotating in both roles).
The focus of the shoot was the USS Aries, a former Navy hydrofoil now docked on the Missouri River. We captured some interesting views of the ship from above and had a great panoramic view over the flooded river. That was also the day when I captured one of my favorite drone videos: following a train as it crossed a bridge over the river. Footage from this day, including the train, can be found here.
What would you say to women and girls about the drone industry to spark their interest in getting involved?
Drones aren’t as scary as they seem! It can definitely be intimidating to take the first step into exploring such a male-dominated field, but not only can you excel, you can have fun with drones, too. If you are even remotely interested, get involved: read the articles on Women Who Drone, watch YouTube tutorials, find a local female pilot willing to mentor you and help you get licensed.
There are so many possible uses for drones. Even if you’re not interested in photography or videography, what about real estate? Agricultural surveying? Archaeological mapping? The options are endless, so jump in and share your ideas.
What excites you most about more women joining the drone industry? I’m excited to see women feeling more comfortable flying and working in all aspects of the drone industry. No matter who you are, flying can be stressful. Having to navigate safety/ethics/legal issues/airspace/etc. — there’s a lot to keep track of, all the time. I’m proud to see other women taking on those challenges and excelling, showing that there are no limits to who can take to the skies.
I love seeing the creativity in drone photography and videography from other women and the innovative things they try with drones that I never would have considered prior. Your background or gender doesn’t matter as long as you are determined and put in the work.
Do you have any drone tips & tricks you can share with our audience?
When I’m unsure if flying is okay in a certain area, I check VFRmap.com first. If it’s still not clear, or I have another safety question, I refer to Fly Safe. In terms of flying, in order to avoid abrupt stops on forward movements, try moving backwards a bit at the end of your move. It should counteract the abrupt jolt you would normally get if you suddenly stopped forward motion.
What's the best way for our readers to get in touch with you?
I can be reached on Instagram @sarahsabatke, where I post my favorite drone photos & videos, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. If anyone in the Missouri area would like to collaborate or learn to fly, please reach out!
Is there anything else you would like our readers to know?
Be patient! While drones are fun, they’re also a serious tool with their own risks. Take the time to practice with intention and cover all of your bases before flying in a new place/for a client.
Sarah is a graduate journalism student at the University of Missouri studying documentary journalism. She is also a licensed pilot with the MU Drone Journalism Program, where she flies commercially and teaches other students how to fly.
Originally from rural Wisconsin, she is an avid fan of long road trips, small towns and visual storytelling. Previously, she has worked for Huffington Post, USA Today College, Alliance magazine and Gatehouse Media, doing a combination of writing and multimedia journalism. She has also reported for KBIA, KOMU-TV, Vox Magazine and the Columbia Missourian, all based in Columbia, MO.
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