FAA Claims Authority Over Unsafe Model Aircraft Flights

 - June 23, 2014, 7:05 PM

The FAA reauthorization legislation that President Obama signed into law in February 2012 gives the FAA the authority to regulate a model aircraft as an unmanned aircraft if it is flown in an unsafe manner, the FAA states in a policy notice published in the Federal Register on June 23.

The agency’s “Interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft” answers the legal challenge posed by Raphael Pirker, who is fighting a $10,000 fine the FAA levied against him for operating a flying wing to take video. Pirker won the first round when an administrative law judge with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) ruled in March that the FAA has no regulations that apply to model aircraft or that classify a model aircraft as an unmanned aircraft—which the agency does regulate. The FAA has appealed the judge’s decision to the full NTSB board.

In the notice of interpretation, the FAA states that Congress in the 2012 act confirmed its longstanding position that model aircraft are aircraft, and that they are also “unmanned.” In a section entitled “Special Rule for Model Aircraft,” the legislation prohibits the FAA from regulating model aircraft that are flown strictly for hobby or recreational use; that are operated in accordance with community-based safety guidelines; that weigh less than 55 pounds; and that do not interfere with manned aircraft. When flying within five miles of an airport, the model aircraft operator must provide advance notice to the airport authority. “Nothing in this section shall be construed to limit the authority of the Administrator to pursue enforcement action against persons operating model aircraft who endanger the safety of the national airspace system,” the legislation adds.

“[M]odel aircraft that do not meet these statutory requirements are nonetheless unmanned aircraft, and as such, are subject to all existing FAA regulations, as well as future rulemaking action, and the FAA intends to apply its regulations to such unmanned aircraft,” states the notice, signed by Administrator Michael Huerta.

The FAA alleges that Pirker operated his Ritewing Zephyr in an unsafe manner at the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, Va., in 2011, and that he also flew the foam-construction aircraft for commercial gain by taking video for a marketing company. The notice does not mention Pirker by name, nor did an FAA press release announcing its publication. “The guidance comes after recent incidents involving the reckless use of unmanned model aircraft near airports and involving large crowds of people,” the FAA stated in the press release. The agency is accepting comments for 30 days from date of publication of the notice.


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Interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft (109K)

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