Our Long National Nightmare is Over

The four year fight between Raphael Pirker and the FAA  has finally come to a close.  On January 22, 2015, the FAA issued an amended order of assessment indicating that the civil penalty matter had been settled and Mr. Pirker had agreed to pay a fine of $1,100.  Needless to say, this is probably the way the case should have been resolved years ago.

Instead, the matter took on a life of its own and became intertwined with the hopes of hobbyists, the dreams of would-be small businessmen, and the mythology of model aircraft.  The case then went on to have a major impact on UAS policy and enforcement efforts when Administrative Law Judge Patrick Geraghty inexplicably ruled that UAS are not aircraft and the FAA has no authority to punish anyone who carelessly or recklessly flies a UAS.

This ruling resulted in a seven month detour to the National Transportation Safety Board for an appeal.  The NTSB rejected the ALJ’s reasoning, and held that all UAS and model aircraft are “aircraft” as that term is used in the Federal Aviation Regulations, and that under 14 C.F.R 91.13, anyone who is guilty of careless or reckless operation of a UAS can face substantial fines.

After the loss before the NTSB, a great deal was written by others about how the ruling was limited in scope, and that there were still many arguments to be made on why the FAA has no jurisdiction to regulate commercial UAS operations.  While bluff and bluster plays a role in litigation, at the end of the day, it appears that Mr. Pirker felt he had no choice but to settle.

Going forward, an examination of the amended FAA Order of Assessment is instructive to show the types of conduct that warrant a civil penalty.  According to the FAA, Mr. Pirker was engaged in a commercial operation at the time of the violation and did not have a private pilot’s license.  In addition, he deliberately operated his aircraft:

  1. through a tunnel containing moving vehicles,
  2. within approximately 50 feet of numerous individuals,
  3. within approximately 20 feet of an active street,
  4. under an elevated pedestrian walkway and above an active street,
  5. directly towards a two story building below rooftop level and made an abrupt climb in order to avoid hitting the building.

The FAA found that these acts violated 14 C.F.R. 91.13 and constituted careless or reckless operation of an aircraft so as to endanger the life or property of another.

This list of actions seems relatively tame when compared with some of the more flagrant violations and reports of near-misses filling the pages of the newspapers on a daily basis.  It amply demonstrates what Plane-ly Spoken has been saying for a while now.  The FAA is gearing up for a major enforcement push, and it is going to impose a high standard of safety.

So, once again, we urge anyone who wants to be in the UAS business to take the time to learn what is in the Federal Aviation Regulations.  For those of you who do not want to do that, at least look over the FAA’s UAS enforcement guidance (http://www.faa.gov/uas/regulations_policies/media/FAA_UAS-PO_LEA_Guidance.pdf) for UAS local law enforcement and the new UAS civil penalty handbook, and then maybe you should reconsider your first decision.

(Originally posted January 23, 2015)

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