The FAA vs. Model Airplanes

By Charlton Stanley, weekend writer

FAA logoAlmost everyone likes model airplanes. Kids and adults have been building model flying machines for centuries. In fact, the Wright brothers experimented with model helicopters as well as fixed wing airplanes. I built my first model when I was nine years old. It was a Guillow’s kit of a Grumman TBF Avenger, the same plane flown by Lt. George H. W. Bush during WW-2. It is amazing to me the same kit is still in production, although a bit more pricey than when my dad bought mine.

When Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, they carved out an exemption for model airplanes and aeromodeling in general. As passed by Congress, §336 prohibits the FAA from promulgating any new rule or regulation regarding model aircraft, or an aircraft being developed as a model aircraft …” The law does specify that certain requirements must be met for an aircraft to qualify as a model airplane. However, that did not deter the FAA in its quest to amass more power over anything that can get off the ground higher than the Administrator can jump. After all, the space between the trees in your backyard, the local park, or your model flying club IS airspace, and they see their job as controlling airspace, dammit! All of it.

AMA logoThe organization which speaks for the majority of responsible model airplane enthusiasts is the Academy of Model Aeronautics. The AMA was founded in 1936 to promote the hobby of building and flying model airplanes. In those days, most models were made of balsa sticks and tissue paper, with small gasoline engines just becoming popular, replacing rubber band power. The first models were “free flight,” which is exactly what it sounds like. The model is powered for a few seconds by either a rubber or fuel motor to get aloft, then becomes a glider, getting lift from rising air, if the modeler is lucky. Or if unlucky may get too much lift and the model ends up miles away, or perhaps never seen again. A model builder named Jim Walker wanted to be able to control his models, just like the real thing. Walker invented what was called U-control, using long thin wires to control the elevator for up and down. Obviously, the model flew in a circle, but with the wires attached to a handle, incredible stunts could be done.

Some early modelers began using radio to control their model airplanes. The first radios were hand made, were heavy and not reliable. Transistors had been invented recently, and those replaced vacuum tubes. When Citizen’s Band channels opened up specific frequencies, a market opened up for more than CB radios on the highway. Specialized control boxes and receivers for model airplanes, cars and boats appeared. Radios became smaller, lighter and more reliable. Free flight and control line flying continued to have a major niche in model aviation, but radio control took center stage by the 1960s and 1970s.

Things appeared to be going along well for both model hobbyists and the FAA until a combination of 9-11 and new photographic technology appeared a few years ago. And the Internet. The FAA started eying model airplanes as another area of flight they could move in on and control. Horror of horrors, they discovered people with NO PILOTS LICENSES were making money from their aerial hobby. Contests have always had prizes, and a few sponsored fliers have likewise been around ever since Jim Walker patented his U-Reely device.

The AMA set up a special office for government relations, designed to coordinate and resolve issues associated with the possibility of airspace conflicts between models and the air traffic system. Most model airplane flying clubs are AMA chartered, meaning that each member has a million dollar insurance policy, but members also have to abide by the rules. For instance, the AMA rules say no flight over 400 feet.

Are there scofflaws? Of course. Just as there are people who speed, drive recklessly, text while driving and do truly dumb stuff in their cars. And boats. And airplanes. And motorcycles. The problem is that scofflaws create problems for everyone else who wants to do the right thing.

I wrote about First Person View flying in a previous article. Since I wrote that, use of FPV has become even more popular. Some real estate agents have used small helicopters to take cameras aloft to photograph properties for sale to use in their ads. It is unfortunate that these models have been conflated with military drones, and news reporters report on “drones” in their stories. Such as the man who was rescued recently when a model flier helped with the search for him over a remote area. If the FAA had their way, the searchers would have been acting illegally, without permits, clearance from Air Traffic Control and proper licensing. In the meantime, the lost man would have died, strangled to death by miles of bureaucratic red tape.

I reported on the tornado that devastated the small town of Mayflower, Arkansas. The reporter who used a camera-equipped model helicopter to get the striking news video I posted is now under investigation by the FAA. No one seems to know just what laws the reporter broke, but the FAA seems determined to find something, anything.

How is the FAA interpreting the new law? You know, the one that exempts model airplanes from FAA control? 14 CFR 91-131 says that no one may operate an aircraft within a Class B airspace area unless the operator/pilot is cleared by ATC (Air Traffic Control).  The Federal Air Regulations say that no one may operate a civil aircraft within a Class B airspace area unless the pilot in command holds a pilot’s certificate.

To understand this, Class B airspace is a massive block of airspace shaped like an upside-down wedding cake over a controlled airport. This link takes you to an image of the various kinds of airspace, including Class B. The inner, bottom ring, extends all the way to the ground for at least five miles from the airport. Take that in for a moment. Class B airspace extends five miles in all directions from the airport. If you live within that area, the FAA says they control the airspace right down to the wheels on your backyard BBQ grill, and little junior can’t fly his toy helicopter or model airplane from Radio Shack or Walmart out there without meeting FAA requirements.

The AMA says there are approximately 100 chartered flying clubs located within Class B airspace. Members have invested years of work, and tens of thousands of dollars improving and maintaining the fields. Many of them have been in operation for decades, with no problems or conflicts with airport traffic. Since they have a 400′ ceiling rule anyway, I want to know what kind of pilot is flying under 400′ feet five miles from the nearest airport without a declared emergency? If that is the airspace conflict the FAA is worried about, they are looking at the wrong pilot to go after.

Model airplane pilots are already required to be aware of and follow NOTAMS (Notices to Airmen) regarding Temporary Flight Restrictions. For example, if the President comes to town, the no-fly zone may extend for thirty or more miles around Air Force One, the motorcade and whatever venue the President is speaking. Pilots, both licensed and modelers, who bust a TFR may find themselves having to talk to unsmiling people in dark suits. For hours. While the suits decide whether to take you to jail or just slap a hefty fine on you.

Back to the FPV flying. The pilot wears virtual reality goggles which project the image from a camera mounted on the plane. The view is similar to what the pilot of a real airplane sees out the windshield. However, the FAA doesn’t like that. The 2012 statute says that model airplanes must be kept within visual line of sight. The intent of the law is to limit how far away a person should fly the model aircraft and still see it, not the method of control. In fact, AMA rules require a “spotter” to assist the pilot using FPV goggles. The FAA says that is unacceptable; you can’t wear the goggles, which of course defeats the whole purpose of flying FPV.

The AMA believes this is a totally unprecedented attempt by the FAA to establish a precedent for controlling and limiting technology they may dislike.

The FAA is trying to make an end run around the 2012 law after losing in court at least twice. They are determined to take control of the hobby of model aviation. There are deeper and more sinister implications for this as well. If one is a licensed pilot, and does something the FAA determines is a violation of the Federal Air Regulations (FAR), their license to fly as a private or commercial pilot is in jeopardy.

The FAA, in their proposed rules, make one of the most sweeping and mind-bending statements I have ever read. The FAA claims an unknown number of aviation regulations, “…may apply to model aircraft operations, depending on the particular circumstances of the operation.” 

Stop and mull that one over. If you have never seen the Federal Air Regulations/Aeronautical Information Manual, it is 1,125 pages of rules. Add to that, the 470 page Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge, and you have a very large amount of stuff to memorize. The FAA, like any other government agency, is made up of fallible human beings. People who get their feelings hurt, may have anger issues, personality disorders or other problems. Some are just rigid and take the literal enforcement of every jot and tittle as their bounden duty. As they say in the south, if you “get crossways” with one of them on a bad day, they can and will come after you.

The comment period is still open until September 23, 2014. This page has some simple explanations of some of the more onerous proposals, with links to the FAA comment section.

Now, about some model flying. Here is Devin McGrath flying his indoor, electric powered foamy at E-Fest last year.



The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.

52 thoughts on “The FAA vs. Model Airplanes”

  1. Mac,
    They mean anyone, period. If you are a BBQ joint and want an aerial shot to show people how big your parking lot is, that is worth a fine in the neighborhood of $10,000. Small real estate agent, rescue squad, church group. It doesn’t matter.

    As Woody pointed out above, very correctly, there are two kinds of people who don’t abide by the rules. One group is the deliberate scofflaws, like Team Black Sheep. The other is the person who orders a “cute” flying toy from a hobby shop or online retailer, and has no idea any rules or regulations exist. No amount of FAA regulations are going to eliminate them. As Anthony Hall wrote in his comment upthread, no more than prohibition curbed booze use.

    1. I am a multibillionaire, I can put a satellite up from a third world country and photograph as I please, but if of ordinary means, tough?
      Of course, multibillionaires are above most laws anyway.

  2. “the FAA has made it clear to Realtors they may not link to it if the property is placed on the market”
    Then this doesn’t apply to real estate brokers who are not members of the national Association of Real Estate Boards (National Assoc. of Realtors)?
    There are other associations of real estate brokers.

    Surprising the FAA hasn’t tried to extend its power to bullets, BBs, rocks shot from kids’ slingshots, expectoration, and boogers flung from car windows.

    “It’s been my experience with the FAA that, for the most part, the FAA wants people to be able to fly.”
    That’s “people being able to fly,” not “people being able to remotely operate unmanned aircraft.”

    “There are also drones on the market for about $300 that anyone can purchase, so the next door neighbor’s teenage boy could fly it over your fence to watch your daughter sunbathing.”
    That’s called “trespassing.” After you tell him to stop, it’s “criminal trespassing.”
    “Being a peeping tom is treated as a crime based on sexual deviancy, with various names in different states. It forms the basis for a lawsuit by the victim on the basis of invasion of privacy.”
    As practically everyone is a sexual deviant, better keep your camera-mounted toy copter away, punk.
    I don’t allow my daughter to sunbathe naked.

  3. I think there’s an actual size limit, Mac, but I could be wrong. Remember that young adult who launched a camera up into the sky with balloons? That was apparently legal because the contraption was only a certain size, ultimately I believe there’s a bright line test.

    1. “Where does a “model aircraft” stop and a “drone” start?”

      At the point where the reporter needs to make an ominous rhetorical point.

  4. Where does a “model aircraft” stop and a “drone” start? Both are remotely controlled aircraft with no pilot on board.
    I’ve seen some rather large model aircraft.
    Good rule: Don’t fly a model aircraft over land not under your control. If you have your next door neighbor’s permission, his land becomes “under your control.”

  5. What do you guys think about these turkeys mounting cameras to remote controlled helicopters to get better views of NYC, a unique perspective. Great until they crash, right? Perhaps on somebody’s head?

  6. KL,
    Kite flying near an airport I wanted to use has been more of a headache than any model airplane. The first time I ever encountered a kite as a problem was some idiot with a big kite on about 1,000 feet of string a few hundred yards off the north end of runway 18/36 at Little Rock (LIT). That was sometime in the 1950s. It was a controlled field in those days, and the tower did send the police out to make the kite flyer go away. There was a lot of radio chatter about it before the local gendarmes reined them in.

    Agree the beginner who buys something they know little about and tries to fly it without assistance is a bad idea. That is one reason I suggested to Beldar upthread that instead of just looking for a hobby shop, that a local chartered club be contacted for help and instruction.

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