We had an awesome and extremely interesting experience this week. Brian and I got to spend an afternoon flying miniquads with one of the fastest FPV drone racing pilots in the world.
How this came about was rather curious. It was my birthday a few months ago, and I can only imagine that I’m quite difficult to shop for. I’m one of those terrible people that immediately buys just about everything I really want.
We already knew that Alex Vanover lived somewhere nearby. Brian’s wife, Julia, noticed that he had an hourly rate listed somewhere on the Internet. I guess that you could pay Alex to work on your broken miniquads. For all we know, he posted this information a few years ago and completely forgot about it.
Julia told him that we didn’t need anyone to work on our quads. She just wanted to know if she could hire him to fly with us. I have absolutely no idea how that conversation went, but a couple of months later, Brian and I found ourselves in the car driving out to a small airstrip on the other side of the metroplex to meet up with Alex Vanover.
Meeting Alex Vanover
The Dallas/Fort Worth metro area is rather large. Brian and I left Plano at around 2:00 PM, and we headed west. About 30 minutes into our journey, we were nearly driving through our old neighborhood in Irving, where we lived nearly 20 years ago. About ten minutes later, and it felt like we were leaving civilization.
After another 15 minutes passed, we were making our way slowly through the roadways surrounding a small airstrip. Google Maps had us off course by one street street. We could see Alex just off in the distance. He was carrying a big racing flag out to the end of the field; we could see he was in the middle of setting up his practice track.
Vanover is an interesting guy. He’s 19. He’s an amazing freestyle pilot. He lives in a hanger at an airport. We were standing next to the field where he put in most of his huge number of hours of practice that made him into one of the fastest drone racing pilots in the world. How cool is that?!
We introduced ourselves, and Alex asked what sort of flying we wanted to do. We quickly decided to drive to a nearby park for some freestyle flying.
I have to wonder what Alex was expecting
I’ve seen videos of drone racing. I’ve seen what the DRL tracks look like. I’ve never actually attended an actual drone race.
I assumed Alex would be expecting us to be hardcore drone racing fans. At worst, I figured he’d expect us to act like my mother would when she ran into the local TV weatherman. You wouldn’t have wanted to be that weatherman!
Later, I gathered that he expected us to have quads that flew poorly. It sounds like that’s fairly common, and I bet it is more likely to be the case when someone is actively looking for help.
I’m not good at PID or filter tuning. If I have a machine that is flying all sorts of wrong, the best I can do is take guesses to try to get it flying better. I do understand the settings well enough that I can take a quad that is flying OK and make it fly a little better, though.
What did we actually do?!
The three of us sat at a picnic table, we took turns flying, and we talked a lot. This is pretty much what I do every time I go flying with friends. Why should it be any different when hanging out with a professional?
The first thing Alex took up with his 5” racing build. He flew it using one of my brand new 1,000 mAh 6S packs. He told me that he’d feel bad if he smoked my brand new battery, but I told him to do his worst. I got these oddly shaped batteries on sale for $18 each last week. Killing one wouldn’t be a big loss, right?!
Watching ridiculously fast racing footage on YouTube is one thing. Seeing a professional racing pilot blast around under the trees at full throttle less than 10 feet away from you is a very different experience! If I was smart, I would have at least gotten DVR footage of that run. Unfortunately, I’m not that smart.
He discharged my battery in less than 2 minutes, and it was a ton of fun to watch. The difference between my casual flying and the flying of a pilot that runs through 100 batteries a day while practicing is nothing short of astonishing.
I think I flew three batteries. I’m pretty sure Brian only flew one, but it was the most impressive contiguous five minutes of flying I’ve ever seen him do. Alex put a few batteries through a DRL Racer 4, and he put one battery through my Falcon build.
That last part had to be my favorite. Watching a skilled freestyle pilot do things that I simply can’t do using my own machine was awesome. Not only was he flying the quad that I fly every day, but Alex was flying a frame that I designed.
My miniquad does much cooler things when one of the fastest professional drone racing pilots in the world is holding the radio!— Pat Regan (@patsheadcom) September 17, 2019
I can hear so many of the differences in his throttle inputs. So much smoother and so much more in control that I can be. pic.twitter.com/o10a77uRfo
Alex had nice things to say about my quad, my frame, and my tune. I even have some of the kind words on video! I wouldn’t feel right publishing any of that video. It is just the tail end of flight footage on the GoPro. I don’t know that either of us realized any of the words would have wound up on a recording.
I don’t want the world to get the mistaken impression that my open-source frame is awesome just because Vanover said nice things to me about it, especially when neither of us realized he was still on camera.
That said, it was nice to hear praise from a professional.
I need to fly with better pilots more often
This is the most important lesson I learned while flying with Alex Vanover. He didn’t explicitly give me this advice. He’s only seen me fly one afternoon. For all he knows, that’s exactly the way I fly every day.
It isn’t. I know I pushed myself a little harder. Sure, I did the same, boring thing I do every time I fly at a new park. I spent most of my time doing split-s maneuvers over all the trees. It is an easy, safe move.
Who am I kidding? I do the same thing at the abandoned golf course where I fly every single week!
There was a particular cluster of trees Alex showed us while he was flying the DRL Racer 4. There’s a rather large and mostly vertical gap in the center of the cluster. I explored the gap, then I did a tall power loop over those trees. I wasn’t line up, so I aborted.
Vanover said, “Ah! It looked like you were going to go for the gap!”
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@captainvanoverfpv made me do it! I'm surprised. I don't remember having enough time to attempt turning out of the way, but it sure looks like I tried. This is probably why I managed to damage the number three prop! #fpv #fpvfreestyle #fpvracing #droneracing #drones #crash
I don’t think I have the skill to have lined up the gap from that angle, but I did go right back in and try again. I would have taken another pass at it even if Alex hadn’t egged me on. I lined up the power loop again, dropped down through the gap, and I smashed directly into the base of the largest tree trunk on my way out!
It was no big deal. My battery got ejected, I broke the hub of an Ethix S4 prop, and broke the tip of another prop. I replaced the props, loaded a fresh battery, and I tried again. That attempt went much more smoothly.
I was definitely more aggressive than I would normally be at a brand new park, but I was also being cautious. I like the title of this blog post. Can you imagine if I had to use the title Spending an Afternoon Getting My Quad Out of A Tree With Alex Vanover?
I would say Brian was similarly encouraged. You should check out his flight video, too.
You should book a flying session with Alex Vanover!
We asked if he’d like to do this sort of thing more often. We probably asked twice. If this was just a weird, one time thing, I might not have even written about it.
Alex said that he would like to do this sort of thing again. I also know his schedule can be hectic. I don’t know exactly what he charges. This was a birthday present, so I’m not supposed to ask that sort of thing. I have a rough idea, though, and I don’t believe he charged us enough.
The most comparable event I can think of is Kwad Camp. I know how much Kwad Camp costs. Sure, Kwad Camp is a much longer event, and there are more pilots to talk to, but you’re also competing with more than a dozen other people for their time.
More importantly, those pilots aren’t Alex Vanover. Sure, the guys at Kwad Camp are great pilots, and they all seem like good people. They’re not racing on television. They’re not one of the fastest pilots in the world.
I have nothing but flight footage
I brought my Osmo Pocket, but I didn’t use it at all. I wanted to have a good time. I didn’t want to use the afternoon as a vlogging experience. Alex didn’t really sign up to be some sort of guest on my YouTube channel, and I wouldn’t even have wanted to ask him to.
I have no pictures, no videos, and no selfies.
I just wanted to have fun. Just like I do every time I go out flying with friends. We spent more time chatting than flying. Just like when I go flying with my friends.
After the flying session
While we were packed up and headed to the car, we invited Alex to grab some dinner with us. Brian and I had to eat on the way home anyway, and it would have been rude not to extend an invitation. I figured there was a 50/50 chance that he would decline the invitation.
On one hand, we probably already used up more time that he had been paid for. On the other hand, everyone has to eat.
There really wasn’t a lot of food close to the park. We wound up stopping at Wendy’s. I heard a rumor that you can get a Frosty there!
What do you do at dinner? You exchange stories. Brian and I mostly had stories that you probably wouldn’t care about, especially if you’re here to read about drone stuff. The only thing relevant to this blog that the two of us talked about were the quadcopter build classes we hosted at Plano’s Makerspace.
Alex had fun and relevant experiences to share with us. We learned more about Rotor Riot’s trip to Croatia. We got some behind-the-scenes information about how Alex lost his quad and GoPro while flying at the Game of Thrones castle. We got to hear some interesting stories about DRL. Now that I’ve met a DRL pilot, I’m going to have to tune in to see what it is all about!
Alex invited us out to come check out the Mission Foods drone race in Carrollton tomorrow night. I plan to attend, but I’m worried that it is going to get rained out!
Wrapping up the day
We took the ten minute drive back to Alex’s hangar. On the way back, we chatted about the weather; it seemed like quite a mild day for Texas sitting in our spot in the shade. We talked about growing up in Texas, what is is like living out of the way at an airport, train derailments, and our almost complete lack of abandoned buildings to fly at around Dallas.
While driving past the runway, I pointed while wondering why the end of the roof straight off somebody’s porch was sitting next to the runway. Alex was kind enough to explain to me that the tetrahedron was a wind indicator.
We drove past Vanover’s practice track and pulled into his driveway. We had three identical ThinkTank backpacks in the car, so we had to make sure Alex didn’t take the wrong one; I’m not sure which one of us would be more disappointed if that happened!
I fished out one of my prop tools to leave behind with him, we exchanged pleasantries, and before I knew it, Brian and I were driving away.
Alex is an interesting guy. I would say that he’s almost exactly what I expected. He’s friendly, knowledgeable, and polite. He’s very excited about what he’s doing, and that’s always fun to see. He’s had some awesome experiences, and he’s only at very the beginning of his journey.
If you’re thinking about hiring Alex to fly with you, to help you with your miniquad hardware, or to have him help you become a better pilot, I would highly encourage you to do so!