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. I presume these rules apply to model gliders. In which case, they also apply to soap bubbles. Think of all the scofflaws blowing soap bubbles near airports!

  2. “With regard to your point #4, there are some who wonder about that too. If they really want people to fly more, they will do away with the 3rd class medical.”

    One thing about the FAA is that they are very conservative: rule making operates extremely slowly. So, for example, when I got my IFR ticket last year, the written test required testing on NDB approaches–a style of approach which uses an AM-frequency transmitter and a special receiver in the airplane to figure out where you are.

    The problem is NDB approaches have all but been entirely phased out all across the country–and the remaining NDB transmitters are only on-line because there hasn’t been enough money to decommission the equipment. So, because there are (I believe) two or three working NDB transmitters out there, and because there are aircraft out there with ADF receivers (which are more often than not used as glorified AM radio receivers to listen to talk radio), the FAA requires extensive testing on the subject.

    That said, I believe the FAA has stated they intend to rule on if third class medicals will be waved for VFR pilots sometime later this year.

  3. Well, the first time we hear of someone mounting a firearm on a drone, committing a crime, that will be the end of model airplane flying.

  4. William Woody,
    I think if you go to the links, the issue of Class B may be a little clearer. As I pointed out, there are about 100 long-established clubs, chartered by the AMA, that exist inside Class B airspace. Most of those clubs have been there for many years, with huge investments in time and money by the membership. The proposed rule would require all “aircraft” operating inside Class B airspace be operated by licensed pilots, subject to all the FARs. That’s crazy. They already have to be aware of NOTAMS, and obey them.

    No clubs operate model aircraft on approach and departure paths of any controlled airport. And club member or not, no responsible person would do so. Obviously, as I pointed out in the piece, there will be scofflaws who do what they want, when they want, and no amount of regulation will stop them.

    As for other uncontrolled airports, some have RC clubs that actually operate on the field, and I am not aware of any incidents. Everyone monitors Unicom, but if it is an AMA chartered club, there will be a field safety officer during all club flight operations. Additionally, members present keep watch for approaching aircraft who may not be using the radio so that conflicts are avoided.

    As for your experiences with the FAA, I am glad they have been positive. So have mine, for the most part, and I took my first flying lesson in 1950. However, not all people have had such positive experiences. Ask Bob Hoover.

    1. “No clubs operate model aircraft on approach and departure paths of any controlled airport. And club member or not, no responsible person would do so. Obviously, as I pointed out in the piece, there will be scofflaws who do what they want, when they want, and no amount of regulation will stop them.”

      There is an intermediate group, those who buy a model aircraft but who are unaware of the rules, and who are unaware of how airspace works. Enter my credit card at Amazon and in two days I can get a DJI Phantom 2 Quadcopter with a GoPro mount. Is there anything in the packaging which tells me what the rules are other than the obligatory “don’t be stupid” and “we disavow any responsibility if you are” fine print?

      Do you know the history of class B airspace in the United States? It started with PSA Flight 182 in the late 1970’s in San Diego, where a Boeing 727 collided with a Cessna 172, killing 144 people, including 7 on the ground. That’s why additional traffic rules were put into place around the busiest airports in the country.

      Look, I agree with you: I think it is extremely stupid that the FAA is going after model airplane operators who are using first person view cameras or who mount GoPros on their quads and using those photos for commercial purposes. (And I’m curious if they’d go after me if I were to get a commercial certificate; I suspect the answer would be “yes.”) And worse, I think it was completely absurd the National Park Service unilaterally outlawing model airplanes in national parks by regulatory fiat.

      I am also unpersuaded at the whole “peeping tom in the sky” argument, given how easy it would be to fly around in a helicopter (which can fly at 500 feet over populated areas) with a telephoto lens.

      But I don’t want to see new rules being put into place as a result of a 737 sucking in a DJI Phantom 2 as it is on final for Burbank.

  5. As a private pilot, I have a few thoughts here.

    (1) Pilots are required to operate with at least 500 feet separation between their airplane and any person on the ground, and at least 1000 feet separation from any conjested area (such as a suburban area). (14 CFR 91.119) (The only exceptions are emergencies, at which point 14 CFR 91.3 says “screw the rulebook”, and during a landing.)

    So the 400 foot ceiling should be adequate for any model airplane flying, except in the approach and departure corridors around an airport.

    (2) Your article made it sound like all passenger-carrying airports are “class B” airports. In fact, only the 37 largest airports in the United States are class ‘B’; most passenger carrying airports are class ‘C’ (and a small few are class ‘D’). Around the United States, there are close to 5000 public use and close to 8000 private-use airports, most of them in uncontrolled airspace. And frankly, a 20 pound model airplane striking the nose of a 172 on short final is going to be a problem regardless of the airport.

    (3) I strongly suspect–because it also worries me–is that the proliferation of model aircraft with cameras will attract a new wave of model airplane fliers who do not abide by the AMA rules, who start operating their model airplanes above 400 feet or within the approach corridors of one of thousands of airports around the country, without even knowing there is a problem. We’ve already seen video of amateurs shooting video in and around skyscrapers in New York (who then dropped their quadcopter on someone’s head); it’s just a matter of time when someone gets it in their head to shoot video of the end of a runway at an airport.

    (4) It’s been my experience with the FAA that, for the most part, the FAA wants people to be able to fly. Many of the administrators who work in the field offices of the FAA are also private pilots themselves. (It’s also said that the FAA isn’t happy until no-one is happy…) So I suspect this is part of the source of the reason why the FAA cannot come up with recommended rules to assure model aircraft separation from larger aircraft: I suspect amongst those within the FAA who wants to just ban everything are those who would want to see model airplanes packaged with a coupon for a free intro ride at a flight school.

    Worse, I don’t see how you handle approach and departure corridors around airports in class ‘G’ airspace, which is completely uncontrolled airspace, and where pilots are expected to maintain visual separation. The rules surrounding class ‘G’ were written back when folks were flying airplanes that approached an airstrip at 40 miles/hour; they barely work with faster Mooneys or Pipers which can approach at three times that speed. Throw into the mix a bunch of tiny 20 pound model aircraft, and it’s as if suddenly your neighborhood street now has kids playing while cars zip around the corner going 60.

  6. Pete,
    Even back when I was a kid, I recall something that caught my attention about big city apartments. Movie scenes and magazine stories shot in luxury high rise apartments often had a very large telescope sitting on or near the balcony. Now, inquiring minds want to know why a 200 power astronomical scope, or 60x spotting scope would be an essential part of an apartment in a light-polluted city? Hmmmmmm……

    1. Charlton – those telescopes are used for exactly what you think they are being used for.

  7. Hi Anthony,
    Thanks for stopping by with some excellent observations. The more people who send comments to the FAA, the better off the hobby will be. Some businesses too, such as real estate agents.

  8. Most RC pilots in clubs are AMA members and follow all the rules for safety.
    AMA rules follow the common sense of protect the public, protect the by-standers, and protect the pilot.

    People that don’t follow AMA rules (probably a very low percentage) will destroy the hobby for all of the rule following RC pilots. Simply posting their videos on Youtube shows “everyone” how unsafe our hobby is to everyone.

    But if one person can ruin our hobby, because it makes us unsafe. When will they decide that its illegal to drive a car unless you have a DOT Hazmat permit? Cars are much more dangerous than most RC planes.

    If the FAA decides to throw these excessive and unnecessary rules at the law abiding RC pilot. I foresee that AMA membership will plummet, and the formerly law abiding pilots will become law breakers. Does anyone remember the Federal Law on Prohibition??? A law that was passed that was unenforceable, so most people ignored it, if not outright broke the law. “Crime” skyrocketed to provide what people wanted to do.

    The FAA does not need to ignore the law as passed by congress, which will “criminalize” law abiding, concerned citizens. Aren’t they breaking the law by misinterpreting the law as written by the legislative branch of government(that is, Congress)?

    It seems that deliberately ignoring the law as plainly stated should in it self, illegal. And as such, the director of the FAA would be directly liable for legal action including jail time for infringement of civil rights of law abiding citizens.

    Their is an old document housed in Washington DC that should still be in effect today that guarantees a citizen certain “unalienable rights”. Including ” life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness; …” (for further reading, search “Declaration of Independence “)

    Hopefully, the FAA will start looking around and decide to follow their own rules and not try to dictate unwanted and improper rules on RC pilots.

    I am a current RC pilot (10+years), AMA member, and hold an office in our local RC club.

  9. Charlton Stanley:

    Since 9/11 federal, state and local governments have been using “terrorism” laws for “non-terrorism” cases to bypass constitutional due process. From all available data it appears to be exceeding 90% legitimacy, so the government and police are already being illegal peeping toms. Can citizens file personal lawsuits against these bureaucrats or their contractors?

    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.

    Drones have brought up issues of property rights. If you spent money to build a privacy fence do you own the airspace inside your yard under 400 feet or under 100 feet? Also could you shoot a drone down flying over your back yard? A small plane or helicopter has limitations that drones don’t have (altitude, noise level, etc).

    Prior to drones, the constitutional standard was anyone could photograph anything as long as they were standing on “public” property (federal buildings, military bases, nuclear power plants and even police). Drones flying in airspace outside your bedroom window (above your private property) creates a new legal question that must be defined. It is legal for planes and helicopters to fly above your private over 400 feet and photograph your property.

    These are issues that will be happening routinely in 2015 when drones will be approved to fly in U.S. airspace and the laws in most localities haven’t addressed this issue yet.

  10. That’s some flying. I can’t imagine the skill required to pilot those models.

  11. In case anyone wonders why so much thrust. This demo was at the 2010 annual Joe Nall event in Georgia. The answer to the question can be seen beginning at about the 0:35 mark on the video.

  12. The FAA will flip if they see this. Model SR-71 Blackbrid has a turbine jet engine.

  13. Beldar,

    Here is the search engine for AMA chartered clubs. Put in your zip code or state and it will give you a list of clubs and contact people. This may be the best way to find out more about the hobby. Like everything else, some hobby stores are better than others, and knowledgeable club members are usually more than happy to help. Many, or most, clubs also offer free flight instruction for beginners. They also give safety instruction, which can help keep you out of trouble.

  14. What are some retail stores which would sell model airplane kits? In New Orleans are there any such stores?

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