In a room inside The Terraces senior home in Los Altos, more than a dozen senior citizens were earning their wings.
For this lesson, activities director J.C. Guzman assumed the role of flight instructor — directing his charges on the finer points of taking off, steering — and issuing perhaps his most important instruction — when to abort.
With that covered, the group began taking turns operating the aircraft — a $39 drone — which over the next 45 minutes offered ample evidence that even an entry level drone can take an awful lot of punishment.
“If you hear me say ‘abort’”, Guzman said holding the remote control, “what I want you to do with the left is bring it all the way to its resting point.”
No sooner had the small drone lifted-off from the flowery carpet in the activities room, than Guzman utterered the first of what would be many, many calls to ‘abort.’ As the newly minted pilot watched in wonderment and then horror, the small device lifted straight up into the ceiling where its quadrant of spinning propellers continued to spin for the heavens… pinning it in ceiling limbo.
“Whoa, whoa!” Guzman shouted, before commanding “abort abort!”
Suddenly the drone plunged to the carpet — a tiny propeller flying through the air — traveling steadier and farther than the actual drone had. The roomful of aspiring fliers broke into laughter.
It didn’t matter that the group included several actual airplane pilots, and even a few former flight attendants — all seemed to be on the same tarmac when it came to the skills of navigating the small flying machine.
“We’re learning something new, sharpening up our minds,” Guzman announced to the group before handing off the control to the next flier. “The other added benefits to it are learning how to relax, how to focus better.”
With that, the drone next careened into a wall, skipped off the piano before attacking a visiting journalist as Guzman yelled “abort, abort.” The woman at the control offered her apologies as well as her flying history: “Last time, I flew it out the door and down the hall.”
Resident Merritt Benson showed-up to the class carrying laminated photos of the B-36 bomber he’d flown once. As he seized the control of the drone, the device resembled the bomb more than the bomber, rising to the ceiling before plunging back to the ground in an explosion of parts.
“I can barely operate one of those,” Benson surrendered. “I could still probably fly that airplane.”
Guzman, who has been running weekly classes at the facility, said drone flying offers many skills for seniors — aside from an afternoon of chuckles and the impromptu exercise of sprinting to escape an errant one.
“You know if they want to take it as a hobby per se,” Guzman said, “they could use photography, bird watching, you name it.”
Resident Elizabeth Chang said the challenge of focusing on a target that’s bounding around the room like a scared rabbit has improved her eyesight.
“I used to have a double vision,” Chang said, “and now i can see everything straight.”
Gregory Hyver suffered a right brain stroke eight years back and thought the class might help his hand-eye coordination. He planned to come back to the room to practice when no human obstacles would be present.
“It’s got me inspired to get my own,” Hyver said, “so I can spend a lot of time up here with my own.”
Some seniors asked Guzman whether they should be flying a drone at their age at all.
“Sure, why not?” he answered. “If I learn how to fly it we all can learn how to fly it.”
Chang said she was also considering getting her own drone so she could fly it with her grandchildren.
“I think there is no difference with age,” Chang said. “It’s only, see if you’re willing to do it or not.”
After one flier narrowly buzzed a row of fellow seniors, a retired flight attendant took up the control — deftly maneuvering the small whirring device into the center of the room where it gracefully hovered. “You’re a natural,” someone said as the device floated gingerly to the earth in the first controlled landing of the day.
Minutes later, the drone was back to its erratic ways, slamming into a wall so hard one of its propellers flew into a woman’s silvery hair.
Guzman headed for the crash site — chuckling as the propeller was rescued from the woman’s plumage, shouting above the din of laughter — “Abort, abort!”