Pilot Spotlight: Interview with Danielle de Leon
Company: Birds Eye of Big Sky | Pilot EQ
Location: Kalispell, Montana
Tell us about yourself.
My name is Danielle, and many know me as a professional drone pilot. Although I deeply adore technology, my heart has a calling to share inspiring stories and discuss the power of psychology. A lot of my time is spent flying drones and capturing video for high-end companies, or preparing for my yoga classes/workshops which hold an emphasis on yoga therapeutics and meditation.
I have been building a drone training company that focuses on crash reduction techniques and will be expanding training options and trademarks this year. More recently, I have been offering myself as a life coach and decision-making mentor to others and am partnering with an adventure therapist in providing couples therapy retreats and workshops. I love the outdoors, food, and connecting with others on an authentic and vulnerable level.
What inspired you to begin flying drones, and what made you want to enter the industry as a drone pilot?
I went to school to study psychology and obtained a minor in photography. I have been capturing photography for the past 13 years, and back in 2012, my business partner knew how to build and fly drones but needed someone to manage editing and delivering media to his clients. He brought me on as an editor and camera operator, and I started flying mini drones and building racing drones as a hobbyist.
As soon as the Part 107 came out, I became a commercial UAS pilot. My first paid job as a UAS pilot was for HBO, focusing on a documentary with Jane Fonda. Just a few months ago, I was in Iceland with National Geographic and Google for a VR project that has been recognized as a Top 25 VR Video on YouTube by Forbes magazine. It’s truly incredible to look back and see how everything has evolved!
A drone view of the Wyoming and Montana border
(photo by Danielle de Leon)
What were you doing before you started flying drones, and what made you make the transition?
Before flying drones, I was a dispensary tender, a yoga instructor, and photographer. The transition happened by being in the right place at the right time and because of who I was connected with.
What drones are you currently flying, and what drone accessories do you love?
I currently fly DJI and Freefly aircraft, specifically. I appreciate the ease of my Mavic 2 Pro, yet I love the flight aerodynamics of the ALTA 8. My favorite drone accessories would have to be polarizers and screen hoods to block out glare.
What is your favorite feature on your drone and why?
The best drone features are being able to take photos while recording video simultaneously, along with the Hyperlapse plug-in on DJI, which is fantastic. It’s amazing to see the 3D models that can be created with other AI programs. The technology around drones has come so far since 2012.
What drone images are you most proud of and why?
The images I am most proud of are ones I took around where I live – in Montana. The video I am most proud of is in the VR projects I have worked on. It all takes me back to those special moments of capturing and what it took to get me there.
Have you learned any valuable lessons from being in the drone industry that you can share with our female drone community?
A thousand-mile adventure all begins with one step in the right direction. Go with your gut, hold yourself to high standards, and go with the flow by living in the moment.
Whether it’s from a creative, commercial or humanitarian perspective, tell us about your most memorable drone flight you have piloted thus far.
I was in Iceland this past May filming a VR project with National Geographic and Google, focusing on a Nat Geo Explorer Glaciologist, M. Jackson. After filming some kayaking in winding rivers, I came into land on my flight cage (since the aircraft can’t have landing gear on it while filming with VR cameras).
The landing was so smooth and graceful that the director gave me the nickname, “Velvet Fingers.” It absolutely was a highlight flight for me since I had been prepping so much mentally and physically for that successful experience in my landings.
A drone image of the Jökulsárlón glacier in Iceland
(drone photo by Danielle de Leon)
What would you say to women and girls about the drone industry to spark their interest in getting involved?
Flying drones can help women refine the balance between leadership and listening, authoritative command and integrating direction. The sense of self that comes from being a UAS pilot can evoke a deep experience of confidence and self-awareness.
What excites you most about more women joining the drone industry?
Women have a special ability in bridging creative thinking with technical understanding. We can provide an unparalleled sense of companionship and care to our crew members in the aviation industry and others that drones can be applied to.
Danielle de Leon flying a Freefly Systems ALTA 8 Octocopter with the Insta 360 Pro 2 360 Virtual Reality camera attached (photo taken by Sherpas Cinema director Dave Mossop). This is the drone she flew for the National Geographic and Google 360 VR project titled “Into Water: Glacier’s Glaciers.”
Do you have any drone tips & tricks you can share with our audience?
Start with something attainable, such as a mini drone, to practice the fundamentals of flying. Try not to get distracted with taking photos and videos before you understand how to control your aircraft without using the camera. Contact me for more tips on flight simulations worth practicing!
What’s the best way for our readers to get in touch with you?
Is there anything else you would like our readers to know about you?
The sky is not the limit – your belief system is.
Alongside the topics of cancer, consciousness, and high performance drone flights, Danielle's journey has been unlike any other. Recognized as one of the few large UAV aircraft pilots in the US, she has worked with National Geographic, Google, UN Women, BBC, HBO, and others.
Her love for psychology, visual aesthetics, yoga, and flying drones has blossomed into a few different companies. One of them specifically focuses on training new drone pilots how to pilot intelligently with crash reduction techniques: Pilot EQ. Danielle is using this training company to specifically study the connection between flying drones and Emotional Intelligence (self awareness, social awareness, self discipline, and social discipline). Some know Danielle as a professional UAS pilot, others may know her as a certified Iyengar yoga instructor, and some even refer to her as a life coach or decision making mentor.