Meet Loretta Alkalay, the drone lawyer

Loretta Alkalay

Meet Loretta Alkalay, a New York-based aviation attorney and professor.

She’s highly experienced in drones, having spent 30 years with the FAA and the past 7 years doing consulting work in international aviation. She studied at Cornell University and NYU. She is a renowned teacher who has taught in India, and is currently an adjunct professor at Vaughn College of Aeronautic Engineering, Aviation, and Technology in Queens, New York.

Drone Girl: Tell me about what you do in the drone industry.

Loretta Alklay: I was an aviation attorney for 30 years. That’s not particularly surprising. When people find out I fly drones, I have 5 Phantoms, AND I am a grandmother, people are surprised.

DG: Surprised? Why?

LA: The stereotypical image of someone flying a drone is not a woman, and it’s certainly not a grandmother.

The best compliment I ever got was when I was flying in Bicentennial Park (now Museum Park) in Miami. It’s right next to the port — the center of Miami. I was flying my drone and these two homeless men had been chatting to me. On the way out, one of the them turns to the other and says, “You’re never too old to learn something new.” I felt like I gave him hope.

DG: You studied law at New York University. Why did you decide to do specialize in aviation law?

LA: The incredibly thing about aviation law is it’s always changing. It’s always topical. It’s something that people talk about. Aviation safety is critical. It brings the world together. Drones are taking a big step forward in that space too. It’s exciting to be in an area of law that is changing. I had a professor at NYU that was one of the most influential people in aviation law. He got me hooked on aviation. Then I went to work for the FAA.

DG: What was one of the things you did at the FAA that you are most proud of?

LA: In the manned aircraft world I worked on voluntary programs. As the accident rate has gone so low, getting it lower depends on getting the confidence of the workforce.

In terms of something that makes a difference, those voluntary programs were people coming forward and talking about mistakes they made, getting a regulatory pass, and then we are able to use that information and research that.

DG: So how did you get into drones?

LA: It was actually thanks to one of my students. In one of the classes I teach, the students can explore anything they are interested in. A few years ago, students started talking about drones. My initial reaction was ‘death missions,’ and I don’t want to hear about it. But by the end of the semester, we had explored them so much that I thought, ‘I want to get one of these!’

DG: So I’m guessing this means you did!

LA: The Phantom 2 Vision came out. I’m not a tinkerer, but as soon as it came out, I thought, ‘that’s it, I’m getting it.’ Ever since then, I’ve gotten each new one. I don’t buy clothes. I don’t jewelry. I buy Phantoms.

DG: You’ve flown a lot of different drones. Which is your favorite?

LA: I like the Phantom 4, don’t get me wrong. But I really like the Phantom 3. It’s not that the Phantom 4 doesn’t have additional benefits — because it does. The camera is better. And of course, there’s collision avoidance, but I don’t really need that.

Because the Phantom 3’s price has gone down, I feel so much braver flying over water with it.  Now with the price drop, I am more confident to do things I wouldn’t do. Every time you buy something, you’re voting for it.

DG: Since you are such an accomplished lawyer, I imagine people try to ask you their drone-related legal questions all the time. What are the most common questions you get?

LA:  All the questions used to be about the whole Section 333, like what is going to happen if I get caught flying commercially without a 333 exemption? A lot of those questions have changed (since Part 107), but people are still asking. People also want to know if they can legally fly in certain places.

DG: You worked in the FAA for 30 years. What’s your perception of how the FAA handled the rise in drones?

LA: I did do 30 years at the Federal Aviation Administration. The biggest thing initially was to sort of get the FAA, which is entrenched in manned aircraft interests, to calm down about the safety risks about these small drones. There was a lot of hype, a lot of fear. There was safety fear, economic fear and some of it was fear of the unknown.

The FAA is extremely risk averse and slow to change. It was difficult for some in the FAA to wrap their heads around the whole idea of these little drones, when the FAA previously had been so concerned about manned aircraft.  Since I still have friends and colleagues at the FAA, I felt like one of my focuses was to be an ambassador for drones. I do think that in some small way I helped calm some levels.

DG: You have three grandchildren. Have you gotten your family into drones too?

LA: I started flying in my backyard because I was kind of a chicken. Then, I always went out really early because I never wanted people around. My husband would go with me. He is not a morning person! Now I’m braver and go by myself.

My grandchildren know what drones are — I bought them Phantom Christmas ornaments, and my drones are in their playroom. My husband calls their playroom the Phantom Hangar. They are too young to fly though — the youngest is 5.

DG: You are also an integral member of the Amelia Droneharts community (an online group for women interested in drones). What’s that like?

LA: The group is  such a wonderful idea. I know what it’s like to be a woman in the manned aviation world, and it wasn’t easy. I thought it was great that they were forming a group.

Rhianna Lakin (the founder of the group) is an amazing person. I admire and respect her. We are not at the point where women are treated equally. There are a lot of amazing people in that group and they derive strength just from knowing there is a group of women in times of trouble. I totally believe in it.

DG: So what are you working on now?

LA: I’m putting together a course; I teach at Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology. Some of our students built their own drones and 3D-printed some of their parts. I had been teaching drone law. But this year, with the new Part 107, we are combining that with a remote college certification course. We have a lot of aviation students — pilots, mechanics, air traffic controllers, engineers. They can now specialize in UAS or as an add-on to what they are studying.

DG: That’s awesome. I want to take that class!

LA:  I think we’re going to see a lot of flight schools offering it. Also, a lot of people have been saying it’s all free online. Yes, that’s true but not everyone learns best that way.

The goal should not be to not just pass the test. The goal is to learn this information.

DG: What are your thoughts on the Part 107 test?

LA: It’s overkill for someone flying a 2.8-lb Phantom, but some of the people are going to end up flying a lot more than 2.8-lb drone. The more frequent, heavier drone and the more integrated into the airspace, the more they will have to understand things.

It looks like the FAA has clearly recognized the deep benefits of drones. It’s clear that people see the future of drones and it’s not going to be the same battle it’s been for the past decade.

6 thoughts on “Meet Loretta Alkalay, the drone lawyer”

  1. I am the Vice Chair of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Long Island Section which is an engineering professional society and we are cavassing for speakers for the upcoming year. Are you available and how may we contact you ? You may send me an email off line if you wish.

  2. Really should have a spotter, not fly alone, especially if flying above a few hundred feet… I had a Cessna fly over the trees one time (luckily I had just landed my R/C plane) so low that could not hear the guy’s plane until he got very close. Turns out he flies so low to see his house nearby!

  3. Hi Loretta, I watched your appearance on 60 minutes today. You may remember, although it’s been 35 years we worked together. I was the POI for Guy America and we spent about a week working with Judge Fowler pulling their certificate. You also had dinner with my wife and I in Germany. Lou Martin, do you remember? I think you did an excellent job on 60 Minutes and I recognized you right away. Obviously you have been taking care of yourself. I retired from the FAA in 1999 in Minneapolis. Please send me your E-mail or street at: pilotlou@aol.com. I have written three books and would like to send you one. My Wife Chieko, also remembers you and says hello.
    Sincerely, Lou Martin

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