HOUSTON (CN) – The Federal Aviation Administration’s new rule requiring drone and model aircraft flyers to register them has stirred up two lawsuits, but serious hobbyists see the mandate as a mere annoyance.
It’s easy for Houstonians to imagine themselves as pilots driving on Westheimer Road, weaving through five lanes of heavy traffic, racing to keep pace with the synched green lights, passing median denizens, panhandlers and tax-service advertisers gyrating in Statue of Liberty garb.
Toward the western edge of town the road splits. Westheimer Parkway doglegs right and narrows to two lanes. The concrete gives way to a 7,800-acre park of sun-scorched grass, sprinkled with oaks and stands of heavy brush.
The fishermen shoulder their poles, tackle boxes in hand, and stroll across the flatland toward a shallow tree-lined pond. A young father holds up a large blanket, lets the wind spread it out for his family picnic, burgers cooking on a grill, kids skipping rocks in the pond.
As you wonder if you’ve driven through a wormhole to the Texas back country, objects appear in the sky to the right. This is Dick Scobee Memorial Airfield, named after a NASA astronaut who died piloting the Space Shuttle Challenger in January 1986.
The field is home to the Bayou City Flyers, a club with 266 members that serves as gatekeeper, regulator and caretakers of the property.
As of Dec. 21, 2015, the FAA requires all recreational flyers of model aircraft and drones that weigh from 0.55 to 55 lbs. to register with the agency, which gives them an FAA number they must affix to all their aircraft.
February 19 was the registration deadline for people who owned their aircraft before Dec. 21. Anyone who bought after that date must register before their maiden flight.
More than 300,000 people have registered, according to the FAA.
Two lawsuits are pending against the FAA in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
The plaintiffs claim the new rule violates the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 , which states that the agency “may not promulgate any rule or may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft” if it’s “flown strictly for hobby or recreational use,” is “operated in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines,” weighs less than 55 lbs., and does not interfere with manned aircraft.
The D.C. Court of Appeals, which hears challenges to federal agency rules, denied Maryland resident John Taylor’s request for a stay of the FAA registration program in December. His motion for summary disposition is pending.
“Like injunctive relief, those motions are rarely granted, but I’m giving it my best shot,” Taylor said in an email.
His case will likely be consolidated with a similar lawsuit that TechFreedom, a Washington D.C. think tank, filed last week.
The FAA said in court filings in Taylor’s case that the 2012 law does not preclude the registration regime.
“The prohibition against future rulemaking is not a complete bar on rulemaking and does not exempt model aircraft from complying with existing statutory and regulatory requirements,” the FAA said in its response .
Timothy Ravich, a University of Central Florida professor of law, said it’s unlikely the court will grant Taylor summary judgment because to do so would “bypass a full merits briefing or oral argument.”
Ravich faults the FAA for not meeting a December 2015 deadline set by Congress to implement rules for government drones. He said Australia and Canada enacted such rules in 2002.
The FAA grants exemptions on a case-by-case basis for businesses to fly drones, and plans to finalize rules for commercial flight later this year.
The FAA said it had granted 3,459 exemptions as of Feb. 17 – 40 of them that day – most notably to Houston-based Anadarko Petroleum “to facilitate inspections of oil and gas” equipment.
The Feb. 17 waivers were also given to a number of photography and surveying companies.
Under the FAA’s draft rules, commercial drone operators will have to pass a written exam, be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration, register the drone and pay around $200 in fees, but would not have to get a pilot’s license.
The rules must undergo a public review and comment period, so they may not be finalized until 2017.
The registration process is nothing new for the Bayou City Flyers, which is sanctioned by the nonprofit Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA). No one can fly at Dick Scobee field unless he or she belongs to the AMA. The $75 annual AMA membership includes $2.5 million in general liability insurance.
The AMA also issues identification numbers for its members, who affix two sets of numerals to their aircraft.
Club president Fernando Delgado, 58, sees the FAA’s new rule as a knee-jerk reaction to drone operators who flew too close to commercial airplanes.
Delgado, who is retired from managing an audio-visual equipment installation firm, had back surgery last year, but you can’t tell from the way he zips around the airfield, silver coffee mug in hand, chatting up members as they tinker with their planes in stalls that lead out to the 75-yard runway.
Since starting the hobby when he was 8, Delgado says, he’s seen its hazards.
“I’ve seen guys get their hands cut off. I’ve seen people killed by [model] helicopters. It’s a very dangerous hobby and that’s why the regulation is so tight on it. So most of us that are responsible will fly with a club just because there’s so much safety implemented in the club itself,” he said in the Bayou City Flyers clubhouse, a trailer at the field where they hold meetings.
The group sells sodas, chips, candy bars and peanuts. A crisp pile of $1 bills left by trustworthy club members was stacked in a bucket in the clubhouse fridge.
Chris Levrier, a club member for two years, sees the new FAA rule in the same light: as an honor system. He said it won’t stop the bad guys and is redundant with the AMA rules.
“If you’re going to go rob a 7/11 or hold up a bank, you’re not going to use your car with your license plates on it,” Levrier said in a telephone interview.
“These guys are going to go out and they know that they’re not supposed to be flying over the stadium, taking these photos or these aerial videos. They’re not going to put their registration on there in case they crash, because they don’t want it to be traced back to them. They may lose their $2,000 helicopter. At least they’re not going to get in trouble for doing it. So that’s why this is silly, because they’re punishing the people who do follow the rules.”
For Levrier, 55, and Delgado, model airplane and drone operators fall into two camps: idiots and responsible flyers, who usually join the AMA.
Sean Riddle, a 28-year-old New Jersey man, crashed his drone into the Empire State Building on Feb. 4 and it dropped to a fifth-floor ledge. He went in and asked security to help him find it and they called police, who arrested him on a reckless endangerment charge.
If Riddle had not registered his drone with the FAA, the government could try to charge him up to $27,500 in civil penalties. “Criminal penalties include fines of up to $250,000 and/or imprisonment for up to three years,” according to the FAA .
Levrier said he once saw a drone, which hobbyists call quadcopters, hovering over Interstate 10 near the airfield.
“How stupid,” he said. “Why would somebody do that? Imagine if all of a sudden he lost power and that thing dropped down and went through somebody’s windshield. What kind of accident could happen? Or just the people driving by looking at it. I mean, I was even looking at it.”
Delgado said the FAA doesn’t have the manpower to go out and check flyers’ registrations, given the hobby’s popularity.
“Within 25 miles of here you probably have 10 clubs. Within 100 miles I think there’s 24 to 26,” he said.
FAA spokesman Les Dorr indicated the agency will take a reactive approach to checking registrations and won’t do random checks.
The agency will check a person’s registration status if it gets a report from police or the public that someone is flying recklessly, and the FBI and all federal law enforcement agencies are authorized to do so, Dorr said in an email.
Flying over roads and the clubhouse is against Bayou City Flyers rules. The club put in no-fly zones within the airfield to ensure flyers keep their planes close to the runway.
Delgado preaches safety. He said the word 15 times in three hours on a recent Saturday at the airfield as planes buzzed, whined and rumbled in the background, the staccato pop of shotguns from a nearby gun club underpinning the soundscape.
“Sometimes it sounds like Gettysburg out here. They have some .50 calibers out there that sound like cannons,” the club’s former president Keith Dick said in the clubhouse between bites of potato chips.
Johnny Boyer, 84, likes to sit in front of the clubhouse’s picture window and watch the planes streak by.
“I’d been flying for 50 years but I had to give it up. I had two strokes within six months and it bent my hands like that,” he said.
His fingers curl back into the palms of his hands, which look tough, as you’d expect of career auto mechanic. Boyer said he would get off work and then work on his planes at home until 1 or 2 a.m., sleep, get up and repeat.
“I always scratch-built my own from plans, bought the wood, you know po’ boy,” he said. “Shoot, nowadays it’s nothing for kids to go down to the hobby shop and say, ‘Momma I need this. Momma I need that.'”
Delgado said prices for model airplanes range from $400 for a foam, battery-powered one to $20,000 for 16-foot jets that weigh 200 lbs. and run on jet fuel. Best Buy sells a small drone for $299.
The hobby can quickly morph into an addiction. “I have three rooms and the garage that are full of airplanes and they’re hanging off the walls,” Delgado said, his smoke from his Pall Mall swirling in the wind.
Boyer, whose wife of 58 years recently died, said she put up with his hobby, to a point. In the couple’s early days he used to keep his planes under their bed.
“I pulled it out one morning and left it there and she got out of bed and put her shoes on and stomped that son-of-a-bitch to pieces. So I never did keep them under my bed anymore. She was very tolerant – about to 10 seconds.”
Kevin Peevey brought his small plane back from the runway after putting it through the paces: 6 minutes of barrel rolls and loops, which is all the time his battery gave him. “I’m full throttle,” he said, adding that he could get 8 minutes if he slowed down.
Peevey, the orange trim on his Houston Astros jersey and hat matching the trim on his plane, pointed to lines on its wings.
“We actually build those into the planes,” Delgado said. “We actually tape it off, spray it with primer, then you sand it down to the top of that and pull it off and it leaves your lines.”
Peevey said remote control flyers “scale” their planes down to the finest details so if someone saw a photo of it in flight they could not tell it’s a model.
Delgado said the hobby is more involved than others because it takes technical expertise in small engines, electronics and radio frequencies.
Peevey pulled a large chrome remote control off a strap on his neck and set it on a picnic table. He said the remote cost $800 and he can program it to fly more than 250 different airplanes.
Ron Mers, 74, is a retired Air Force flight instructor who flew bush planes in Alaska for 20 years. He’s often tapped by club members to take their planes on their maiden flights and trim them out: set the controls so the plane stays level.
With his close-cropped salt-and-pepper mustache, khakis, sunglasses and black bomber jacket, he looks the part.
He sees the FAA’s new rules as no big deal.
“I don’t see anything wrong with it,” he said. “The thing is, with all the people flying and getting into trouble, they have to have some control. And I’ve had people tell me, ‘Well the FAA doesn’t control the airspace.’ Well, in my 25 years of flying, I found out they do.”
As Mers and another club member worked out some kinks in the landing gear of Mers’ model jet, Delgado was behind the clubhouse, double-checking the wiring on his Fokker D.VII.
The German World War I fighter was renowned for its agility that allowed it to strafe enemy aircraft from below with its machine gun.
Delgado said he’s the fourth owner of the cherry red-and-white striped plane and he’s put 100 hours and $1,500 into it.
“Most people couldn’t get them to fly very well, so they discontinued them, but I’m stubborn. I’m a research kind of guy so I figured there’s got to be a way to do it,” he said.
He asked Mers to take the Fokker on its maiden run.
“Feeling ambitious?” he asked Mers.
“I heard you got her ready. I guess we can do it. The wind’s not too bad,” Mers said.
“I’m forgoing the no-fly zone for a special occasion,” said Delgado, his giddiness rubbing off on several other club members who gathered to see the flight.
They rolled the Fokker out to a launching pad designated for drones and upwind from the runway.
One man held the Fokker’s tail, steadying it for Mers, who manipulated the remote and eased the plane up into the wind. Its electric motor buzzed and the crowd shouted and grinned as Mers stabilized it and took it for a few shallow passes.
The only hiccup came when Mers landed it and the plane hit a rut and tipped up on its nose. It wasn’t damaged. Delgado breathed a sigh of relief and said all the work was worth it, his thoughts far removed from the recent chat about the FAA.
“The FAA I don’t foresee them coming out and bothering us. They may come out just to check us out, but as soon as they talk to somebody they’ll see they don’t have any worry with us. If you’re legal it’s not going to bother you,” Mers said.
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