Sometimes when you set out to fix one problem you create one (sometimes many) more. That’s what I think is happening now as the FAA has said it will not extend the comment period for a controversial program that, essentially, treats model aircraft as drones. As the EAA says, “The rule would require most [unmanned aircraft systems], no matter whether they are ‘drones’ or traditional model aircraft, to carry equipment that identifies the device and broadcasts its location. Additionally, many would be required to be equipped with ‘geofencing’ systems that autonomously contain the craft within a defined altitude and lateral boundary.” Does that sound as crazy to you as it does to me?
Actually, I’m getting ahead of myself.
If I asked for a show of hands among pilots asking how many got into aviation by building model airplanes, and then extending that hobby into flying radio-controlled model airplanes, I expect that well more than half the room would be extending limbs high into the air. I know, because I have asked this question at presentations and meetings all over the country. That, and the observation that just about every hangar or workshop I visit, has radio-controlled airplanes hanging from the walls or ceilings. Modeling is, and always has been, a gateway into full-scale aviation—just read any aviation biography and you’ll find that not only are future pilots born in a little farmhouse, but they got their start building balsa and tissue models.
So there is little doubt in my mind that young model aircraft builders and flyers are the future of aviation—its where kids develop an interest and passion for aviation. And passion is important because aviation is not easy and it’s not cheap—you need motivation to get in, and to stay in. What starts as a passion for models becomes a passion for light aircraft, which then becomes a path into the military or the long road through instruction, charter and eventually airline flying. And without pilots flying airliners our entire economy falls off a cliff. The general public doesn’t know this, but they would probably understand if they were told.
That brings us back to the FAA, which has proposed a set of rules that essentially requires registration and ADS-B type installations on model aircraft across the country. This has developed out of work done to regulate Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), or drones, over the last decade. The FAA has tried a number of different initiatives to control and regulate drones, yet it is hard to see that much has changed except for a proliferation of rules proposals and some bureaucratic registration systems that have met with mixed results. Sure, many law-abiding citizens have registered their drones and gotten licenses to fly them, but most of the problem drone reports have been caused by those who didn’t. A “bad guy” with a drone simply isn’t going to bother registering it—that’s pretty simple to understand.
The latest proposed regulations are out for comment right now, with a 60-day comment period that started on January 1. So far, in one month, it has solicited 7000 comments—a huge number for a proposal that has hardly been publicized outside of aviation circles.
It is a draconian proposal that has clearly raised a lot of ire. But it needs to raise more, so the EAA asked the FAA for an extension of the time period to allow more comments. The FAA very abruptly denied this request, saying that they will not allow an extension due to security concerns and the dire nature of the threat posed by drones.
Now folks, let’s take a step back. So far, in 10 years of drone awareness, there have been many reported suspicions of drone strikes on aircraft, yet only one or two that have been confirmed— worldwide. That is far below the number of bird strikes every week. Why do I bring up bird strikes? Well there is little that can be done about them. Yet we, as pilots, clearly accept the small risk because if we didn’t we wouldn’t fly at all. Drones are no different, unless you argue that there are malicious operators out there intentionally trying to hit airplanes with their drones. Sure, that is clearly a possible scenario, but let’s be honest—its pretty darn unlikely. You’d really have to have made an enemy for someone to make that sort of effort to take you out. And if you were going to do that, you certainly wouldn’t register it or let it transmit its ID and position.
So in a 10-year process in which little progress has been made, why suddenly do we need to close comments right now on a proposal that is clearly unpopular? I think I know: Because the longer you leave comments open, the more negative comments you get, and the more unpopular it obviously becomes. Yup, that’s the way it works in government—and as a former federal civil servant, I have a little insight.
This is not meant to paint the vast number of FAA personnel in a bad light—they are, by and large, great people doing good things for aviation. But they are directed by political forces beyond their control. Remember, policy is usually not created by civil servants, it is created by politicians; it’s just implemented by civil servants. When we see obvious bullying tactics by an agency toward the public, that is generally a sign of political pressure not civil servants run amuck. Civil servants aren’t allowed to run the mucks anyway…. (It’s above their pay grade.)
Regardless of your opinions on how drones and model airplanes should be regulated, the bottom line is that if you want to have a say in how your government regulates them, it is time to go make your comments and let your voice be heard! (There are instructions for submitting comments on this page, via email, regular mail, hand delivery, courier and, yes, fax.) Comments are due by March 2, 2020.
No matter how you do it, do it soon. You’re not getting an extension. That has been made abundantly clear.