Pilot wins case against FAA over commercial drone flight

MGN Online
Friday, March 7, 2014 - 2:34pm

In a David vs. Goliath battle that pitted the Federal Aviation Administration against the operator of a small model airplane, a federal administrative judge has sided with the aircraft's pilot.

The judge has dismissed a proposed $10,000 fine against businessman Raphael Pirker, who used a remotely operated 56-inch foam glider to take aerial video for an advertisement for the University of Virginia Medical Center.

The FAA alleged that since Pirker was using the aircraft for profit, he ran afoul of regulations requiring commercial operators of "Unmanned Aircraft Systems" -- sometimes called UAS or drones -- to obtain FAA authorization.

But a judge on Thursday agreed with Pirker that the FAA overreached by applying regulations for aircraft to model aircraft, and said no FAA rule prohibited Pirker's radio-controlled flight.

Thursday's ruling is believed to be the first to address the issue, but it was not immediately clear whether the FAA would appeal, or what impact it would have on others hoping to use drones for profit.

As recently as last week, the FAA had publicized its restrictions on commercial use of drones. In a press release headlined "Busting Myths about the FAA and Unmanned Aircraft," it stressed that UAS enthusiasts could not use drones for commercial purposes.

"A commercial flight requires a certified aircraft, a licensed pilot and operating approval. To date, only one operation has met these criteria, using Insitu's ScanEagle, and authorization was limited to the Arctic," the FAA's Busting Myths release said.

"There are no shades of gray in FAA regulations," the FAA continued. "Anyone who wants to fly an aircraft-manned or unmanned-in U.S. airspace needs some level of FAA approval."

The FAA could not be reached Thursday night for comment on the Pirker ruling.

Pirker's attorney, Brendan Schulman, called it "a tremendously significant decision for model aircraft and commercial drone operators."

"As a general matter, the decision finds that the FAA's 2007 policy statement banning the commercial use of model aircraft is not enforceable. It would appear to me to have a very significant impact on other operators," Schulman said.

Pirker's flight occurred Oct. 17, 2011, when he remotely piloted a $130 RiteWing Zephyr II aircraft at the campus medical center.

The FAA investigated, and the following April it proposed a $10,000 civil penalty, saying that Pirker operated the plane "in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another."

Pirker operated the aircraft within about 50 feet of numerous individuals, about 20 feet of a crowded street, and within approximately 100 feet of an active heliport at UVA, the FAA alleged. One person had to take "evasive measures" to avoid being struck by the aircraft, the agency said.

Pirker appealed the case to the National Transportation Safety Board, where Judge Patrick Geraghty ruled Thursday, dismissing the FAA order.

Schulman said Thursday night that his client had not yet learned of the ruling.

"I think he's still asleep. He lives in Hong Kong and they're 12 hours off," Schulman said, adding, "I'm sure he'd be happy about it."

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