Jim Moore AOPA
RC grounded in DC, federal court weighs cases
The nation’s second highest court now has two cases before it challenging recent actions taken by the FAA to regulate aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds and flown by hobbyists.
The legal tug of war between the FAA and enthusiasts (including the world’s largest model aircraft hobbyist organization) may be decided about 30 miles from the nearest place a hobbyist can legally fly a small unmanned aircraft, as of Sept. 2. That’s when the FAA expanded the Washington, D.C., no-drone zone far beyond its original size, which was bounded by the Flight Restricted Zone, extending up to 15 nautical miles from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
The FAA notified the Academy of Model Aeronautics hours before updating a 1981 advisory circular on model aircraft rules to include new language that made the Washington, D.C., Special Flight Rules Area—covering everything within a 30-nm radius of the DCA VOR—a no-fly zone for model aircraft, or unmanned aircraft, terms that are defined inconsistently in various laws and regulations.
As a result, 14 AMA clubs were grounded in an instant by a single advisory circular, and the FAA added more than 2,000 square miles of Virginia and Maryland to the no-fly zone for drones, more than tripling its size.
AMA advised its members in December to comply with the September directive, noting that litigation was already underway, and that the organization was also negotiating with the FAA to resolve this particular impasse.
Caught by surprise
Being lumped in with those who fly quadcopters thousands of feet in the air near busy airports, fit them with guns, or crash them into crowds, came as a surprise to AMA members including Scott Strimple. The 44-year model aircraft enthusiast is also a captain for a major airline with more than 25,000 flight hours, and an authorized commercial operator of many of the larger camera-toting drone models used by civilians. Strimple is often called on by media organizations and others seeking education in the safe operation of small unmanned aircraft systems.
He is also out of luck if he wants to fly a radio-controlled aircraft within 30 miles of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Strimple, in a telephone interview, said he and fellow model aircraft enthusiasts “are just sitting here with our mouths hanging open, saying, ‘What’s this all about?’”
Hobbyists had, until June 2014, assumed that Congress had them covered, having directed the FAA in 2012 to keep its regulatory hands off hobbyists. There was, however, one exclusion within the 2012 law to that “hands off” directive, a caveat that the FAA seized upon amid growing alarm over reckless drone operators.
“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.”
That sentence, vague as it may be, is shaping up to be one of the key points of debate in a legal and regulatory battle that could spill over into the manned aircraft world, in the view of Jonathan Rupprecht, a Florida attorney who has built a busy practice around unmanned aircraft. An outspoken critic of FAA drone policy, Rupprecht has authored books and blogs on the subject, and he is also a certificated flight instructor and graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
“I think pilots need to realize that the drone community is kind of like their crazy black sheep rebellious brother,” Rupprecht told AOPA. He likened the drone world to the “canary in the coal mine” and the “first to feel FAA overreach.”
Rupprecht, who is not representing parties in the cases now being litigated in a federal courtroom (though he noted he’s doing the research, and is available), said that if the FAA is allowed to circumvent the rulemaking process and force hobbyists to register drones (and traditional model aircraft whose operators long-believed they were exempt from FAA regulation), “what happens when the FAA starts changing it around and starts going after manned aircraft pilots?”
Flying into the Washington, D.C., Special Flight Rules Area, he noted, could get more difficult for every pilot.
“It’s not manned versus unmanned. (We) really should phrase it as, everybody should follow the law,” Rupprecht said. “The FAA did not follow the law. They’re kind of making up law, and pushing it off on one group.”