Darrell Abby carefully wipes down the fuselage of his Curtiss P-40 Warhawk for its first flight of the day.
He checks the flaps, wiggles the rudder, pumps in gas and monitors the air pressure for the landing gear. Then he pulls on a grey heavy work glove before spinning the propeller to start the engine.
While Abby’s warbird has a wingspan of 86 inches — the real deal is 37 feet — the pre-flight checks he performs mimic those taken by a pilot before crawling into a cockpit.
“We’re very big on safety,” said Abby, a 66-year-old retired Delta Air Lines pilot at a “fly-in” of model aircraft buffs in Fort Worth on Saturday. “In my opinion, these things are like a real airplane.”
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So it should come as no surprise that Abby and other hobbyists are in a four-foot hover over the FAA’s recent efforts to clarify its rules for flying model aircraft in the wake of some recent incidents involving small remote-controlled aircraft, commonly referred to as drones.
Published in the Federal Register late last month, the FAA proposal restates some of the agency’s established rules for model aircraft and tries to shed new light on others with the stated purpose of protecting the public both in the air and on the ground.
“We want people who fly model aircraft for recreation to enjoy their hobby — but to enjoy it safely,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said last month.
But opponents to the FAA’s recent attempt at rule-making say that what the agency is doing flies in the face of a law Congress passed in 2012 to protect the model plane community from “overreaching and onerous regulation” by the federal government.
Comparing it to the ongoing debate over gun control laws, Abby and others say a few bad actors are causing trouble for the vast majority of model aircraft owners who operate their miniature bombers, fighters, helicopters and blimps responsibly and safely.
“The FAA is trying to take part or all of our hobby away on a knee-jerk reaction to a specific problem that they will never be able to control,” said Ed Couch, who has been involved in aeromodelling for 62 years. “It’s the individual, not the vehicle, that is causing the problem.”
FAA rule “clarification”
The FAA says it published the new 17-page interpretation of its rules after receiving multiple inquiries regarding its enforcement authority over model aircraft. There have also been several high-profile incidents involving unmanned aircraft in the past year.
In March, a U.S. Airways jet flying from Charlotte, N.C. to Tallahassee, Fla., nearly collided with a remote-controlled aircraft. The airline pilot described the aircraft as a camouflaged F-4 Phantom jet he was convinced he had hit.
Last month, the owner of a remote-controlled quad copter was flying — in apparent violation of FAA airspace regulations — over downtown Dallas and Arlington. He eventually lost control of the aircraft while flying over the $1.2 billion AT&T Stadium and it crashed onto the roof.
But observers say the FAA’s urge to restate the rules can really be traced to a ruling in March by an administrative law judge that dismissed a $10,000 fine against Raphael Pirker, a businessman who in 2011 used a remote-controlled foam glider to take video for the University of Virginia Medical Center. The FAA said Pirker’s actions were reckless. The FAA is appealing the decision.
Despite complaints from the modeling community, the agency says that it’s simply trying to clear up ambiguities in its existing regulations.
The agency says the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 prohibits it from putting into force any regulation regarding model aircraft if it meets several criteria.
But the law does not prevent the FAA from any future rule-making that may affect model aircraft, such as the use of airspace for safety or security reasons, the interpretation states. The clarification was published June 25 and comments can be submitted for 30 days.
“What we were doing was clarifying the FAA’s authority under existing legislation,” said Les Dorr, a spokesman for the agency.
The recent publication rehashes some of the previous rules, such as anyone operating an aircraft within five miles of an airport has to provide the air traffic controller with prior notice of operation. Model aircraft also can only fly up to 400 feet in the air.
The FAA also restates that flying for commercial purposes is strictly prohibited and it gives examples of what is okay. Taking photos from a drone for fun is okay; a real estate company doing so for a property listing, not so much. Viewing crops grown for personal enjoyment to see if they need watering, go right ahead. But if those crops are part of a farming operation, no can do.
The newest wrinkle makes it clear that the aircraft must be kept in “visual line of sight” without the aid of a camera or other devices. The FAA’s fear of flying in this scenario is that the drone pilot — who could be operating from a base miles away — can’t see well enough to avoid colliding with another aircraft.
“We have a mandate to protect the American people in the air and on the ground and the public expects us to carry out that mission,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.
“It’s part of my roots”
At the field in east Fort Worth, Abby and other members of the Greater Southwest Aero Modelers are celebrating the Fourth of July with a cookout and a fly-in.
Parked along the main runway are several large-scale models, some of them “scratch built,” others from “almost ready to fly” kits. Besides Abby’s P-40 Warhawk, there is a Messerschmitt Bf 109, a Vought F4 Corsair and a North American P-51 Mustang.
Club members carefully fly their planes, keeping them in sight at all times, often with a second person standing next to them acting as a spotter.
In flight, some of the smaller engines have the high-pitched whine of lawn edgers, while the grumbling from the bigger airplanes — which can fly up to 120 mph — resembles chainsaws.
But the biggest buzz at the annual event is the fear that the FAA’s “clarifications” may ground them.
Tim Lovett, a retired Hurst police officer and president of the club, is afraid that what the FAA is doing is a “gateway” to more stringent and unnecessary regulation.
“It makes me wonder what the next step is,” Lovett said. “When we are at a field like this, we don’t interface with full-scale aircraft. We are a model aircraft hobbyist organization, so we don’t and shouldn’t come under the auspices of FAA control.
“Anytime model aircraft interfaces with a full-scale airport control areas then I’ve got no problem with the FAA being involved, they need to be for all of our safety. But outside of that no. I don’t see it,” he said.
The Academy of Model Aeronautics, a community-based membership organization that has existed since 1936 and has more than 165,000 members nationwide, also issued a statement saying it is “extremely disappointed and troubled by the approach the FAA has chosen.”
The Muncie, Ind.-based group said the FAA frankly is ignoring the intent of the 2012 law passed by Congress to exempt their activities from regulation if it is conducted safely.
“The people writing these rules are by and large people who don’t have experience with or a background in this industry,” said Rich Hanson, a spokesman for the AMA. “They would shackle the one organization that is operating safely and responsibly.”
Brian Huff, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Arlington who is conducting cutting-edge research in drones, said the FAA’s clarification is one of the largest rule changes he’s seen.
“To me the criteria should be if it is being operated in a safe and appropriate manner rather than if it is being used for sport and recreation,” Huff said. “People who want to put these [drones] to good use, that will slow them down.”
Couch, owner of Over the Top, a company that flies small blimps in the American Airlines Center and AT&T Stadium, said he wants the freedom to enjoy his hobby and grow his business.
“Whether I’m flying a 30-foot airship for the Dallas Cowboys or a 13-inch model, it makes me no difference, it’s part of my roots,” said Couch, a retired engineer and technician at Vought and Lockheed. “We are not geeks, crazies or someone lurking in the background bound on taking the government down. As a group, we love aviation in all its glory.”