Lady Gaga’s “Flying Dress” and FAA Exemptions – Interview with Gus Calderon


Gus Calderon is an FAA-licensed commercial pilot with a multi-engine and instrument rating. He developed, owned, and operated an FAA Part 135 air charter operation and was granted an Air Carrier Certificate from the San Diego Flight Service District Office. Gus has over 2,500 flight hours in turbine and high-performance aircraft and over 15 years of experience in aerial photography. He owns a Beechcraft Bonanza A-36 based in San Diego and flies around for business and pleasure.

Gus’s interest in aviation started when he began building and flying remote-controlled aircraft in the 1970’s. He began integrating autopilots and cameras on fixed-wing R/C aircraft in 2006 and then custom built multi-rotor platforms for aerial photography and cinematography. Gus was a member of Lady Gaga’s design and development team for her “Flying Dress” which was named the Volantis. On November 10, 2013, Gus flew Lady Gaga on the Volantis at the ArtPop album release in Brooklyn, New York. Gus was chosen as the pilot of the Volantis because of his experience in commercial aviation and knowledge of multi-rotor systems.

Gus holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology from Boston College and a Master of Science degree in Geology from the University of Arizona. He recently founded Airspace Consulting and utilizes his commercial aviation experience to write operating manuals and help companies obtain their Section 333 exemption. Gus is also a Contributor to Rotor Drone magazine.


Tell us about yourself and your background.

Ever since I was a child I was interested in understanding the world in which we live, how it came to be, and how can I help to make it a better place. I studied the natural sciences and pursued my interest in remote control aircraft, aviation, photography, and unmanned aircraft systems. I hope to leverage my knowledge of science and aviation to help others improve their lives using drones for beneficial purposes.


Gus Calderon and drone


How did you get started in the drone industry?

I first became interested in aviation in 1977 when I began building and flying remote control aircraft. This challenging hobby led to a career as a commercial pilot after I received my formal education. After 9/11 the aviation industry began to decline and I became concerned about its future. Since I was also doing aerial photography I thought about using remote control aircraft to offer a more affordable service to my clients. With the advent of multi-rotors and brushless gimbals, I realized the future of aviation is unmanned.


Tell us about your company, what it is, and your role there. How did the company get started? 

When the FAA began granting exemptions to aerial cinematography companies on September 25th, 2014, I realized that my experience in commercial aviation, drones, and technical writing could be used to help other companies receive their exemptions. As the founder of Airspace Consulting, I write the operating manuals for my clients and help them navigate the complex process. To date, I have helped 7 companies receive their exemption and it is always a great feeling to receive the call from a client telling me that they received their exemption thanks to my assistance. 


Tell us about your team and what makes them great. Any interesting stories about how the team came together?

My business partner is also a commercial pilot, flight instructor, journalist, photographer, and most importantly, my wife. Maha refines my technical writing and ensures that the final product that gets submitted to the FAA is grammatically correct. We met when she started taking flight lessons and became my co-pilot when I was operating my FAA Certified air charter company.


Gus and Maha


What is your favorite drone to fly and why?

I fly a custom Y-6 Ringcopter that I designed and built. I also custom-built a 2-axis brushless gimbal that I designed for a Sony HDR-760 camcorder. The circular airframe is unique and this drone has been featured in many national publications such as the Atlantic Monthly and Rotor Drone magazine. It is my favorite drone to fly because it is capable of handling very high winds.


Tell us about some of the drones/products you design and manufacture.

I have designed many custom multi-rotors for clients with very specific needs. I have also designed custom brushless gimbals for various cameras and sensors. Much of the work I have done is protected by non-disclosure agreements so I cannot discuss the details.


Who are most of your clients, or your most common types of projects?

Currently, my clients are companies seeking FAA exemptions to conduct commercial operations. Most of my clients are performing infrastructure inspections, mapping, photogrammetry, and aerial cinematography. Some of my clients are new to the drone industry and others have been operating for years.


What’s your favorite type of project and why?

As a consultant, I get requests to solve problems that are challenging and complex. I get a lot of personal satisfaction from finding solutions to difficult and unusual problems. I would say that my favorite type of project is one that requires my aviation experience and scientific approach to problem solving.


What project that you have worked on are you most proud of?

I am most proud of working on Lady Gaga’s “flying dress”, the Volantis. Designing and building the power system for a 200 pound multi-rotor was extremely challenging, especially with the timeframe we were given. Flying Lady Gaga on the Volantis was an experience that words cannot describe. All I can say is that project pushed me to go beyond the limits of what I thought I was capable of accomplishing. One of Lady Gaga’s goals for the project was to inspire young people to use technology to improve their lives, and I fully support that effort.



Do you have an FAA exemption? If yes, What was involved in getting it? 

I do have an FAA exemption and I am in the process of registering my drone. It was quite simple for me to obtain because of my expertise in writing operating manuals. I would like to add that I used a drone attorney, Jonathan Rupprecht, to file the petition. I recommend that my clients use an attorney to file their petition for exemption.


What are some of the characteristics of a great drone pilot?

I believe a great drone pilot is one who makes sound decisions based on the principles of Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM). Being a great drone pilot is not just about the skills obtained from practicing maneuvers, but it is about identifying hazards and managing risk. Additionally, knowledge of all the systems on the drone and performing a preflight inspection are characteristics of a great drone pilot. In my opinion, a great drone pilot is a safe drone pilot.


How do you make yourself and your business stand out in the crowd?

I have owned and operated several businesses over the past 20 years and I have found that customer satisfaction is far more important than slick marketing campaigns. I believe in spending time to build my reputation as a professional since that is one quality that sets me apart from the crowd. In my experience the best form of advertising is a referral from a satisfied client.


Gus and flying dress


What advice would you give to others who want to get started flying drones?

Anyone who is interested in flying drones must understand that these are miniature aircraft and they share airspace with manned aircraft. Also, it is important to be aware that not everyone is excited about drones so please be respectful of others. Novice drone pilots should seek out experienced pilots and learn as much as they can from them in a remote, open location.


What advances in drone technology are you excited about?

While there are countless advances in drone technology being developed around the world, I believe the most important advances relate to increasing their reliability. The development of redundant systems is also necessary for drones to continue their integration into the National Airspace System (NAS).


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Elizabeth Ciobanu

I cover breaking news in the drone industry, interview experts in the field to learn from them for myself, and to help spread the love of drones.

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