Should the FAA have regulatory authority over model airplanes? It’s a more complicated debate than many people realize.
The drone debate has been back and forth and back again, with the FAA stressing that it wants to have the authority to regulate even recreational drones. The agency, you might remember, established rules last year requiring the registration of small drones, even those that were operated for recreation. A court this year nixed that plan, citing law that unambiguously states that the FAA isn’t allowed to regulate model airplanes. We don’t think the FAA legal folks missed that law. We think that they just felt so strongly about regulating drones that they pushed it through anyway, either hoping to triumph in court or figuring that they could use the denial to energize new legislation.
Which is exactly what they’re up to now. The agency is hoping that a new proposal, okayed by Congress, to let the FAA regulate small drones gets signed by the president.
But is it proper for the agency to wield this authority? The advent of cheap, easy-to-fly drones—there are way more of them than actual aircraft these days—hasn’t actually changed the principles behind what was settled policy for many decades. That law has been, we think, well thought out, finding a great balance between safety and personal freedoms, a line that can be very difficult to divine in simple times and in modern times, perhaps impossible.
These new drones are not a new category of flying craft. They are models, just not technically model “airplanes.” The fact that they are, for the most part, rotorcraft, is a meaningless distinction. Model helicopters have been bunched together with model “airplanes” for decades. The key is the fact that they are, as I mentioned in passing earlier, easy to fly. Pair this with the fact that they can take awesome video from perspectives we’ve never seen before and their appeal is clear.
So here’s the problem. There are a lot of these things and the people who are flying them are in general not well educated about airspace, which is hardly surprising, considering that it’s a complicated subject even for pilots. Real pilots. This used to be a much smaller issue, because model airplane flyers mostly flew out of approved fields in safe places (usually far from full-size airplane airports) and because the activity was (and is) concentrated around clubs, there’s a lot of institutional knowledge that gets passed around. I know about this because my dad was a model airplane fanatic for about 80 of his years here on earth.
So, here’s the problem then. We have a lot of drone pilots who are flying things that could be a hazard to full-sized airplanes and these drone flyers, unless regulated by somebody, can do what they want with no training or education on the rules of the airways. And with recreational drones weighing as much as 54.9 pounds, there’s some serious risk not just to Skyhawks and Mooneys but to Boeings and Airbuses, too.
This is an issue we might be facing when really-easy-to-fly, people-carrying aircraft become ubiquitous. It’s perfectly legal today to fly a single-seat, sub-254-pound aircraft with no training and with no registration requirement. It’s all in FAR Part 103, the ultralight aircraft section of the regs, if you want to take a look. These days there aren’t a ton of ultralight flyers out there, and the ones there are get pretty good training and tend to fly from established fields with other ultralight pilots. Oh, and the reason that there aren’t that many ultralight pilots? Just like model airplanes of old, they require a lot of skill to fly them safely.
When that part changes, and it won’t be long, look for the segment to explode, and then we’ll be having the same conversation about people-carrying aircraft as we are about drones. And the answer will be: The FAA should definitely get involved. It’s just in everybody’s best interest.