A few months back, I bought a drone. I had a vague notion that I could use a drone for shooting video, so I bought a Blade 350 QX, a relatively affordable model that can carry a GoPro. Video capability is important, because the GoPro allows you to say “I’m flying my drone” rather than “I’m playing with my radio-controlled helicopter.” If you see a guy flying a radio-controlled plane, he’s an emotionally stunted man-child. If you see me flying my drone, I’m a cinematographer getting some important footage. Wheee!
While I use my drone to shoot car videos and find out which of my neighbors have swimming pools that they’re not inviting me to use, my friend Sandy Poirier—proprietor of Shag in Southie—gets a little more creative. When I asked him what he’d shot with his DJI Phantom 2, he sent a link to a short clip of a model standing atop a cliff in the Quincy quarry, her red dress billowing cinematically as she pretends to shoot a movie with an old-timey camera. I think Sandy’s videos might have a slightly higher production value than mine, the most recent of which was entitled “Zapruder-level shaky video of my dogs barking at the sky.” It will probably not make the cut at Sundance. Worse, there was not even one model involved.
Judging by the quarry video, Sandy’s flight skills are pretty smooth, but he says that while he was learning the ropes he almost had a flyaway—drone jargon for the unhappy circumstance when your little aircraft stops responding to the controls and goes all Amelia Earhart on you. “I started running after it, and I guess I got within range because it came back,” he says. Sandy wrote his phone number on the Phantom, which is either prudent or risky, depending on where it lands. Err, sorry about your outdoor display of Ming vases, Secretary of State Kerry.
Inspired by Sandy’s video, I decide to take my drone to a nearby field—some might call it a golf course—and practice my technique. Right away, I pull off a sweet flip, going inverted before touching the skids to the grass and bouncing skyward. It would’ve been extra cool if I’d done it intentionally. I decide to increase the altitude to give myself room to maneuver.
I push forward on the throttle stick and watch the drone climb into the sky, higher and higher, until it’s a white dot pinned against the blue sky. I spin it around just to make sure it’s still responding. And then, as I ease back the throttle to bring it down, I think, “Nah, let’s go a little higher.” Entranced, I watch the Blade climb yet again, until I can barely see it. Must be a great view from up there! Vicariously, I’m flying. And then I take my eye off it.
Suddenly, the Blade is gone. I know where it should be, its approximate spot in the sky, but it’s vanished. Thinking of Sandy’s strategy, I run the length of a par five until I’m beneath the last known location. The whole time, I lean on the “go home” toggle, which tells the drone to use its GPS to return to the spot where it took off. But there’s no sign of it, no telltale buzz from the four whirring propellers. Why, why did I have to fly higher? Curse me, for I am verily the Icarus of small electric helicopters!
I search the woods for about 15 minutes, gauging the wind to estimate where it might’ve gone down, but I know the effort is futile. The Blade could literally be a mile away, up in a tree or sunk in a pond. With denial out of the way, I move on to the second stage of grief: anger. And boy, I’m good and angry. Financially speaking, I just shot $800 out of a cannon. The only reason I don’t spike the remote on a rock is that I might at least be able to sell it to some lucky bastard who didn’t fly his drone to the Azores.
I’m nearly back to the car when I trudge up to my starting point to find none other than the Blade 350 QX, sitting upright and chirping happily right where it took off. Home! It went home! How it got there without me seeing it I still don’t know. But I’ve never been so happy to see an inanimate object.
And I learned my lesson. No, not about flying too high—after looking at the footage, I think I can go higher. But from now on, if a Blade 350 QX suddenly drops into your backyard, you’ll have my number. You can use it to invite me over to the pool.