In early 2012, within the same congressional legislation that enabled FAA to impose impactful NextGen routes without meaningful environmental review, FAA was directed to accelerate ‘integration of unmanned aerial vehicles’ into the National Airspace System. Deadlines were set, and FAA has consistently failed these deadlines, but FAA did eventually get around to creating some rules. FAA also created an exemption process, enabling so-called ‘commercial operators’ to proceed without compliance to the new rules.
FAA has since granted more than a thousand exemptions (searchable list of 1,451 exemption entries, with links to PDF copies). Each exemption has required dozens of hours of work on both ends of the process: the applicant (or their well-paid attorney) has to create typically 20-50 pages of documentation, and FAA lawyers and others then spend dozens of hours reviewing the application and drafting a ‘decision’ filled with boilerplate that typically runs 8-10 pages long. Generally, the exemptions require flight no higher than 400-feet above ground level, and the operator must have earned a costly FAA pilot certification. In many cases, FAA has also submitted the exemption applications for publication in the Federal Register, in accordance with the NPRM rulemaking process.
One of the latest FAA exemption approvals goes to Peter Sachs, a Connecticut attorney developing a specialty in unmanned flight. Here, he was granted approval to fly a paper airplane with a tiny propeller … so long as he uses an FAA-licensed pilot to perform the flight and flies low to the ground. Just a paper airplane, which clearly could have no significant impact on any real aircraft.
Perhaps a more intelligent FAA rule (and one that would provide lots of relief from aviation noise) would be to mandate all manned aircraft minimize flight time below say 2,500-feet above ground level (AGL), and do all level cruising flights at no less than 2,500-feet AGL.
For the record, FAA’s current helicopter rules essentially allow helicopter pilots to cruise right at ground level, and fixed-wing planes are legal at just 500-feet above ‘uncongested’ terrain and 1,000-feet above ‘congested terrain’ (whatever those terms mean). Furthermore, the rules promulgated by FAA at FAR 91.119 are loaded with loopholes that render them entirely unenforceable; for example, ANY pilot can justify low flying, simply by claiming he or she needed to be at that altitude to transition to or from their cruising altitude.
It seems rather incredible that this much busywork should go into creating rules, yet the rules are so arbitrary that the agency quickly grants rule exemptions to well over a thousand applicants. And all of this fuss over objects (radio-control models, and even paper airplanes now!) that just four years ago were considered ‘recreational’. One has to question just how intelligent a rule is, when thousands of exemptions are promptly issued. Imagine if our state DMV’s arbitrarily issued 30mph maximum speed limits for our cars, then granted tens of thousands of waivers, each accompanied with a tiny decal to go onto our cars. Yes, it would be absurd and expensive, but it sure would keep lots of state DMV employees busy.
The same appears to be the case at FAA. Wouldn’t it be nice if FAA redirected their personnel resources, aiming them instead at…
- … resolving noise issues,
- … reducing GA accident rates,
- … improving helicopter fuel tank ruptures (and other serious airworthiness problems), and
- … correcting the employee fatigue issues that continue to haunt pilots and controllers?
FAA could do so much more, if it chose to serve the People, not just the industry players.