What Can FAA & NTSB do to Reduce HEMS Accidents?

In the past week, we have had two fatal crashes of helicopters providing ’emergency medical services’. Historical data shows that many of these ‘HEMS’ fatal accidents happen at nighttime, when flying in poor weather, especially in dark (moonless) conditions.

20150312.. HEMS crash, west of Eufaula Lake, mapSuch was the case with this latest accident, on March 12th. A pilot and two crewmembers were flying from Tulsa back to their EagleMed base at McAlester, Oklahoma [KMLC]. The flight ended up crashed in terrain to the west of Eufaula Lake (green box area), minutes prior to their planned arrival at McAlester.

On this particular night, in the area around McAlester, the moon (which was waning and illuminated at 63%) rose at 1:03AM, nearly two hours after the accident. Thus, it was a dark night.

Also on this night, the weather was deteriorating. When weather is poor, helicopter pilots choose to fly at lower altitudes, to stay below the bottom cloud layer. In sufficiently dark night conditions and at low altitudes, even a seasoned pilot may not see a tall tree, an antenna tower, or a mountain until the last second, if at all. Such conditions make helicopter transport far more risky than ground transport.

In the HEMS industry, company owners rake in huge profits if they can get their crews to be the first medical transport at the scene of an accident. But, they also earn large fees (exceeding $10,000)contracting with hospitals to fly patients from point A to point B. The problem is, the profit motive is so intense that many pilots have found it difficult to say ‘no’, even in the worst flying conditions. And, this problem is amplified by FAA’s rules for helicopter flying, which allow pilots to fly at any level – right down to the surface – to dodge declining weather. In many of the resulting accidents, the helicopter proceeded in declining visibility, to lower and lower altitudes, then impacted guy lines that support antenna towers.

And then there is the media coverage. When these HEMS accidents happen, the news coverage tends to focus superficially on the physical tragedy, while failing to investigate a key question: was there a real benefit, and was it necessary, to use a helicopter for the specific incident? The media tends to not ask these questions and, instead, waits for FAA and/or NTSB to comment about the risks involved. The problem, though, is that both agencies are pressured to stay quiet, so as not to undermine the profit potential of the HEMS industry.

Also, the media tends to paint the crash victims as heroic in their service. We are led to believe that others would have died if the HEMS crew had not selflessly risked life and limb to respond. In truth, though, accident histories have shown time and again that most nighttime HEMS accidents would have been avoided – and patients would have been just fine, too – if pilots had simply accepted the real risks and elected to wait for conditions to improve.

FAA is very much to blame for the fact these HEMS accidents continue to kill so many in the United States. FAA has the authority to regulate this industry, but chooses not to. For decades, the pattern has been to delay tighter rules and keep the safety rules fuzzy and ambiguous. Chronically, FAA does their best to not interfere with this or any aviation industry.

In this latest fatal HEMS accident, it is again tragic that a pilot was lost, that two others were injured, and that families and friends have been made to suffer. But, if we are to move beyond repeats of these accidents, we need real and timely information. If there is evidence suggesting decisions were made that were too risky, that evidence needs to be revealed to the Public ASAP.

It would be helpful if the FAA and NTSB became more assertive in sharing information about these HEMS accidents. Perhaps, within 48-hours of each accident, they should post the preliminary information that helps the news media (and readers) to assess answers to the following questions:

  • What was the purpose of the flight? I.e., was it for routine transfer of a stable patient, or was it an accident response?
  • What was the specific urgency that necessitated use of a helicopter instead of ground transportation? Or, was there no benefit to a patient?
  • Was weather possibly a factor (i.e., what were the nearest reported weather conditions)?
  • Was darkness possibly a factor (i.e., what were the known conditions)?

See also:

ANALYSIS: Three Serious Accidents in Texas, all Related to the Same Frontal Passage

On the evening of February 4th, three separate small aircraft crashed and were destroyed in Texas. Two accidents killed the sole pilots; the third accident had four adults aboard and nobody died.

At all three locations (Lubbock, Argyle, and Andrews) a frontal passage occurred hours before the accident. The frontal passage brought strong, gusting winds, overcast ceilings below 1,000-feet, falling temperatures, and combinations of light rain, freezing drizzle, and mist.

The cold front passed through at around the following times:

  • Hobbs, NM: 12noon
  • Lubbock, TX: 3PM
  • Andrews, TX: 5PM
  • Denton, TX: 8PM
20150204scp.. PA46 flight route to KLBB (flightaware)

(click on image to view flight at Flightaware.com)

The first accident was in Lubbock [KLBB] and involved a doctor flying a Piper Malibu (high-performance single-prop). He was flying home from near Hobbs, NM. The flight impacted an 814-foot tall TV station antenna, and crashed more than six miles from the runway. The KLBB METAR 12-minutes after the accident, at 7:47PM, included: temp/dew 28/25, wind northeast 21kts gusting to 31kts, visibility 7 miles, ceiling 700′ overcast. Conditions were prime for icing, and light freezing drizzle did begin on the surface at KLBB at around the time of the crash. It seems inconceivable that the pilot would attempt to ‘scud-run’ so low, nor that ATC would allow it. The ATC communications should be revealing.

20150204scp.. N441TG, Final approach map, Flightaware

(click on image to view flight at Flightaware.com)

The second accident was also fatal, and involved a businessman flying alone, home to the Denton airport [KDTO] in a 10-passenger Cessna Conquest (twin-prop). His flight profile included an intercept of the KDTO RNAV Runway 36 final approach at WOBOS, just west of Grapevine Lake. The KDTO METAR seven minutes prior to the accident, at 9:03PM, included: temp/dew 38/37, wind north 20kts gusting to 29kts, visibility 2 miles light rain and mist, ceiling 900-feet overcast. The crash debris distribution, with the wings and empennage separated but whole, suggests an aircraft that hit the ground hard but with a relatively normal ‘flat and straight ahead’ attitude. As with the Lubbock crash, ATC should have considerable information to explain the circumstances of this crash, so long as FAA does not conceal the information within the ATSAP safety data black hole.

20150204scp.. BE36 flight route to E11 (flightaware)

(click on image to view flight at Flightaware.com)

The third accident was miraculously nonfatal for the four adults aboard. Weather at the arrival airport near Andrews [E11] was already down to a 900-foot overcast ceiling, even before the single-prop Beechcraft Bonanza departed. Weather deteriorated further during the 80-minute flight, and the E11 METAR ten minutes prior to the accident, at 12:35AM, included: temp/dew 29/29, wind north-northeast 13kts gusting to 18kts, visibility 5 miles mist, ceiling 700-feet overcast. These flight conditions, to an uncontrolled airport in flat treeless countryside, have been known to result in scud-running. In this case, the pilot reportedly radioed ATC with an icing problem.

Here is a satellite view of the terrain near the Andrews County Airport. In a controlled arrival, given the winds, you would line up for Runway 34 or Runway 02. If iced up, you might not make it that far. Imagine dropping through the clouds at 700-feet above the surface, and having maybe one minute to try and control the aircraft and pick a spot to cause the least damage. A lot easier here than in other parts of Texas.

20150204scp.. Satellite image for approach area of E11

(click on image to view the satellite image at Google maps)

2015-01-17: Transcript for the Near-Collision at KJFK

The following transcript is based on the archived ATC recording at LiveATC.net: KJFK 1-18-2015 0300-0330Z. The airline codes are: BWA (Caribbean Airlines); JBU (JetBlue); AZA (Alitalia); UAE (Emirates); AAL (American); VRD (‘Redwoods’, aka Virgin America); AMX (Aeromexico); UAL (United). Flights below are color- coded: red (arrival) and green (departure).

The arrival sequence was: AMX404 — VRD56 — BWA526 — AAL32 — JBU302. ATC applied positive control on both VRD56 and AAL32, issuing: “…right Juliet, hold short of two-two-right, remain this frequency….” Importantly, this clearance was NOT issued to BWA526. Also, a full five minutes passed between the time ATC issued the ‘hold short 22R’ to VRD56 and then AAL32; thus, the arrival spacing was averaging one per 2.5 minutes, which is a relatively calm arrival rate.

The departure sequence was: JBU1337 — AZA611 — UAE206 — JBU1295. For each departure, ATC had the aircraft ‘line up and wait’ on the runway, then issued a takeoff clearance after the previous arrival had finished taxiing across the runway downfield. Again, at the time the controller cleared JBU1295 for takeoff, he had done nothing to ensure BWA526 would hold short of the same runway.

Additionally, there is no evidence that the controller needed to be in any hurry. AMX404 was crossed prior to takeoff clearance for UAE206 (at time 27:35). Then, it was a full two minutes later, when VRD56 was crossed prior to takeoff clearance for JBU1295 (at time 29:41). And notice on the transcript that, immediately after clearing JBU1295 for takeoff, the controller does NOT focus on BWA526; instead, he diverts his attention to a nonessential flight, a VFR Cessna overflight whom he tells to maintain at or below just 500-feet altitude under departing jets (an approval that in itself is arguably unsafe).

So, what happened?

This appears to be a classic same-runway controller error, where the controller simply ‘temporarily forgot’ about one of his aircraft. Happens all the time. This is why controllers are trained to scan all the time, and this is also why it is valuable to have more than one controller watching the runway areas. Had this controller been in training, his instructor would have written him up for a ‘POSNI’ (Positive Separation not Insured). Then, again, the instructor’s job is to make sure situations like this never happen, so it might also have been swept under the rug….

Of course, the BWA56 flight crew was a major part of this error, too. Most pilots would have stopped short of the runway and radioed ATC advising they were holding short, and asking for further instructions. But, it is up to the controller to ‘control’ the traffic, by issuing crisp and timely clearances that keep the aircraft flowing and out of trouble. This controller, on this particular Saturday night, was surprisingly sloppy with his phraseology, and it came back to bite him.

It is worth saying again: this sort of incident happens all the time, where a controller temporarily spaces on one aircraft. This latest incident is just the ‘big league’ version of a very similar scenario, the 7/25/2010 Controller Error at KCMA. That, too, was swept under the rug. In fact, the Camarillo controller error was concealed by the tower supervisor, then the tower manager, then the hub management, then the regional QA people, and eventually even by Clay Foushee and Tony Ferrante at FAA Headquarters.

ANALYSIS: 2015-01-16.. Forced Landing of an Air Tour Flight Near Halawa Falls, Molokai

A Cessna Skyhawk flying an apparent air tour lost engine power and crashed in rough forested terrain, while touring near Halawa Falls in the northeast part of Molokai. The tour passengers were a Japanese couple and their daughter. News reports indicate that the pilot and two passengers had minor injuries, but the mother was hospitalized with serious injuries.

20070819scp.. C172 forced landing field on Lanai, pilot pic (M.Richards)

The pilot, happy for his good luck. (click on image to view article/source)

The pilot, 35-yr-old Michael Richards, had previous experience with forced landings while flying this same aircraft type. On August 16, 2007, he was doing an instructional flight with N5207D, a C172, when he lost engine power; all three survived (the instructor, his student, and an observer/student). Then, on June 24, 2014, Mr. Richards and a student lost power at 2,000-feet and made a forced landing with N66540, ending up in a plowed pineapple field, near the Waipio Costco.

The most recent forced landing was with N5660E, a C172 registered with an operator named Hawaiian Night Lights LLC.

20070819scp.. C172 forced landing field on Lanai (M.Richards)

(click on image to read article about another forced landing, involving the same pilot, in 2007)

Is the Safety Oversight Missing?

Interestingly, neither the 2007 nor the 2014 forced landings are included within the NTSB aviation accident database. They clearly should have been. On the same day as the 2007 Hawaiian incident, another student pilot had a hard landing at an airport in Keystone Height, FL; that incident, far less significant (and far more common) than an in-flight engine failure, was investigated and added to the NTSB database [LAX07CA256]. And, on the day before the 2014 Hawaiian incident, another C172, in Miami, FL, had a hard landing when the pilot’s seat slid during touch-and-go pattern practice. It was written up at NTSB [ERA14CA331].

So, it will not be a surprise if neither NTSB nor FAA produces an investigation and report for the latest incident. They should. These are commercial activities. Just like the ‘instructional flights’ sold to tourists on ultralights are ‘commercial’ and generally overlooked by FAA. In fact, two died ten months ago in Kauai, the latest in a long history where both pilots and paying passengers have died in commercial flight accidents.

An agency that takes civil action against those who use low-altitude drones to capture real estate or news photos, should be far more concerned with ensuring safety in commercial air tourism. Get the data on these incidents, share it widely, and clean up Hawaiian air tourism before the next fatality happens.


See also:

The Truth is the First Casualty of any Air Crash

Geoffrey Thomas, at AirlineRatings.com in Western Australia, seems to have one of the best factual views of the QZ8501 tragedy. And he is doing a great job posting coverage since the Indonesia AirAsia flight disappeared nearly six days ago. One of his Posts on New Years Day re-declares the maxim that, when anything bad happens in aviation, facts are the first things to disappear.

He’s correct, but it should not be this way. Every nation has an aviation authority, such as FAA in the United States. These agencies are stuffed full of employees, theoretically there to serve the Public. In their early years, these agencies did very important safety and infrastructure development work. But, as these agencies have matured, they seem to have become less and less productive, more about quietly helping the airlines than about aggressively speaking up for safety. So, when an accident or incident occurs, they tend to say nothing. It is as if their speaking up might get in the way of how the accident airline needs/wants to manage the PR spin.

Given this, when an incident like QZ8501 happens, we end up with a deep informational vacuum. Neither airlines nor regulatory authorities take charge to clearly and timely articulate the known facts. And as we all know, where there is an informational vacuum, rumors and other garbage will quickly fill the void. This is happening (AGAIN!) with QZ8501, while victim’s families suffer, and while millions of others ponder just how safe aviation is.

It’s a new year.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if FAA’s leadership chose to set a new, higher standard for the world to follow, by aggressively working for maximized aviation safety? Wouldn’t it be great if, when a serious accident or incident happens, the relevant national authority would step forward and firmly assert the known facts, and then stay up front to keep us all urgently posted? This is kind of the way NTSB’s Deborah Hersman handled the investigation, in early 2013, when the B787 battery fires were happening.

Can we make that our new standard for aviation safety transparency?

The Lack of Tracking

20150101cpy.. QZ8501 crying prayingIn today’s aviation, hundreds of people can disappear in an instant. We have the technologies to safely track flights, but implementing these technologies does not conform with the fiscal bottom line. So, one flight disappears, tens of millions are spent fruitlessly searching, then another disappears, and we just stumble about … while the families and friends of those lost grieve horribly. They grieve for their real personal loss, and their pain is intensified by the cold lack of explanations.

Granted, we will not necessarily save lives by showing up at an oceanic crash scene within three hours. But, let’s not forget that one of the primary reasons for preserving this flight data is to learn from the incident and prevent it from happening again. In the U.S., we have spent decades studying civil passenger aviation and slowly acquiring new knowledge. We have learned about: wake turbulence, microbursts, crew coordination (and the need for crew resource management), icing, spatial disorientation, and basic human fatigue. In most cases, we have applied the lessons learned to create new technologies, new procedures, and new protocols. All for safety.

Today, perhaps more than ever, our government regulators are clearly teamed up with corporate officials to encourage the rapid growth of a robust trans-oceanic passenger airline industry. Countries like Malaysia and Indonesia are prime markets, owing to their populations and multi-island geography. But, we as passengers are left to wonder: are our government regulators placing enough emphasis on safety and risk reduction, to learn from one accident so that a repeat accident never happens?

Case in point: the flight data recorders, aka ‘black boxes’. These devices have been around for six decades. They record all the key flight data, but they function remotely, like padlocked desktop computers without an Internet connection. When an accident happens, we still have to find the black box and hope it provides the data we need to see. And within these black boxes, the design anachronistically records voice over what was recorded two hours earlier. This is the design standard approved by agencies such as the FAA. It is as if we want to minimize our odds of producing hard data. And yet, if we can put thousands of songs on a slim personal device, surely we can record an entire flight’s worth of flightdeck conversations, right?

Is anyone served well by the current program? No. Though, in an odd way, the lack of hard data denies legal proceedings. Instead, that lack of hard data fosters a quick round of apologies and payouts to victim families, followed by head-scratching and ‘let’s forget this happened, now, and get back to the business of growing this business’. Which, seemingly, is a lousy way to run a business.

“Given that a standard iPhone can record 24 hours of audio, surely the black box should have sufficient memory to record cockpit conversation for the full duration of any flight.”

– Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, after the disappearance of MH370

Basic Streaming Data for Flight Incidents

There is no valid reason that a system cannot be deployed to stream basic flight data for all commercial passenger flight emergencies. A device that assesses the flight second-by-second and, if key flight parameters are exceeded (rate of descent, rate of climb, bank angle, pitch angle, airspeed, altitude above terrain, distance from planned route, etc.), once any parameter is exceeded, the system independently transmits the basic data for accumulation into a data cloud. A small investment, to share data to a satellite, in a situation where an on-board device senses a developing incident.

Each second, a bundle of data gets stored for quick access by others, including rescue authorities. This is not a huge and expensive bundle of data. This bundle reduces to just three basic parameters: position (lat/long), altitude, and indicated airspeed. And, if the system notes substantial changes within the previous 15-seconds, add just a few other parameters to the bundle: the heading, and/or the pitch angle, and/or the bank angle. This way we can see if the aircraft went into a spin, perhaps related to catastrophic failure. This is a mighty small bundle of data, and the least that should be done for passengers on these over-water flights.

We’ve had the technologies for many years. Now, we need the will and the leadership to use them, to start collecting data from failed oceanic flights.


See also:

“Unfit for Flight” news investigation wins the NPF ‘Feddie’ Award

National Press Foundation recognized Thomas Frank for his USA Today investigative series about aviation fatalities and regulatory capture.

A non-profit foundation, NPF cited Mr. Frank for his “extraordinary investigation” in his series, ‘Unfit for Flight’, which appeared in June. He was given the ‘Feddie’ award, recognizing that his writing helps to show how federal policy affects local government. Judges were also impressed with how the presentation of the  news series “…effectively uses the techniques of digital journalism: video, animation and responsive design. This is modern journalism at its best.”

The series revealed how design defects have been allowed to persist in private airplanes and helicopters for decades, often because of cover-ups by manufacturers. The stories also showed how National Transportation Safety Board crash investigations often overlook the causes of aircraft crashes and deaths, and how the Federal Aviation Administration allows brand-new aircraft to be manufactured under safety regulations that are decades old, thus perpetuating known design flaws.

Pilot Fatigue: a Problem FAA Still Needs to Address

Flying Magazine published an article by Stephen Pope, Fighting Pilot Fatigue: New Views on Staying Alert.PDFThe article looks at the long history of fatigue-related accidents, and the insights collected in recent years.

The article refers to the Colgan 3407 accident in Buffalo on 2/12/09, as well as the crash of a Beech Baron in Teterboro at 3:05AM on 8/21/2009. Fifty died in Buffalo, in an accident that put HUGE political pressure on FAA about many commercial aviation issues:

  • FAA’s ongoing refusal to resolve pilot fatigue risks,
  • the apparent lower quality assurance standards at commuter/feeder airlines,
  • common long-distance commutes by underpaid pilots,
  • and the deceptive sales of tickets by major carriers, but for flights flown by commuter/feeder airline subcontractors.

Both accidents were fatigue-related, but in a decision that reveals how NTSB can be pressured to help FAA accommodate the financial interests of the airlines, the actual reports were drafted to direct attention at other, non-fatigue issues. This finally caused a minor rebellion by two NTSB members in 2011, when the Teterboro [KTEB] crash report was finalized. Both Chair Deborah Hersman and member Mark Rosekind submitted dissenting opinions. “Despite substantial indications of fatigue effects,” Rosekind wrote in his dissenting brief on the Teterboro crash, “the present accident report fails to acknowledge fatigue’s role in the accident. Based on the factors identified, fatigue was a likely contributory cause.”

In the years since, some minor rule changes have been implemented, but they exclude the sector of pilots most susceptible to fatigue issues: cargo pilots, who commonly work overnight shifts. One such example was the UPS Flight 1354 crash at Birmingham, AL on 8/14/13, which killed two.

So, that’s some of the background. Here are three short excerpts from an article well worth studying, about an aviation risk FAA still needs to address…


 

EXCERPT “In the last decade alone researchers have made tremendous strides in sleep research, noting in studies, for example, that getting even 30 minutes less rest in a single night can impair performance and memory the next day, and that the effects of sleep loss are cumulative, meaning that the sleep we get is like money we deposit in the bank. If we continually draw down our “sleep accounts” for several nights, the effects can be cumulative — and lethal.”

EXCERPT “GA pilots who fly for transportation are at high risk of flying while fatigued. The same factors that go into becoming a pilot/owner of a high-performance airplane, an attractive income and high-achieving attitude, are often associated with a lifestyle that lends itself to fatigue. Typical GA pilots have crazy work schedules, many family commitments, and hobbies about which they’re passionate but which further impact their schedule. The lifestyle of high-achieving individuals puts them at constant risk of flying while fatigued.”

EXCERPT “The NTSB put pilot fatigue on its “Most Wanted” list of safety improvements and kept it there for 22 straight years, but it wasn’t until the crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 in Buffalo, New York, in February 2009, in which 50 people died, that the FAA rewrote airline pilot rest and duty-time rules.

It’s Black Friday … and Tens of Thousands of RC Aircraft Likely will be Purchased

Which means a lot more work for the nearly 45,000 employees at the FAA.

Why? Because FAA is way behind in developing the drone regulations Congress has mandated, and this failure is putting the U.S. way behind other countries where drones use far less fuel and create far less noise to get certain jobs done. Also, because FAA liberally defines the ‘National Airspace System’ to include not just at legitimate aviation locations such as places where quiet drones could monitor rush-hour traffic at 500- to 1,000-feet altitude (instead of those noisy traffic watch helicopters and planes), but also at absurd places far below real aircraft, like:

  • the 400-foot altitude that the neighbor kid carefully stays within while flying his radio-controlled model airplane … all with clear approval of FAA, up until a couple months ago;
  • the 100-feet of airspace above your house, which you might enjoy using with an aerial camera drone, to capture nice aerial photos of your garden or home project;
  • or even (arguably) the classroom air between your son and his target when he decides to launch a spitwad (which NTSB recently decided can be treated as an ‘aircraft’, and is thus subject to FAA regulations).

20141125.. RadioShack ad, RC quadcopter and heloHere’s the Radio Shack ad for today’s big sale. The quadcopter in the upper-right corner, with the glow-green rotors, costs only $60 and is for kids 12 and older.

The red helicopter in the upper left costs only $15, and claims to be for kids 8 and older! Which makes one wonder: will FAA be sending inspectors to elementary school auditoriums to discuss with third-graders, ‘How Kids can Help to Keep the National Airspace System Safe’?

NTSB Remands Pirker UAV Case

In October 2011, Raphael Pirker flew a model aircraft over the campus of the University of Virginia and recorded a few minutes of video. Mr. Pirker, from Switzerland, was assessed a $10,000 fine by FAA. He challenged the assessment, noting that FAA (aka, the ‘Complainant’) had failed to actually regulate ‘model airplanes’ and was misapplying the full-sized airplane regulations to lesser flying devices. In fact, model airplane use is subject to recommendations made by FAA in an advisory circular published in June 1981 (see the first three pages of Attachment 1).

Pirker won his initial challenge in a March 6, 2014 decision, when an Administrative Judge (AJ) granted a dismissal. Here is some of the text from the AJ’s decision to dismiss:

“…Complainant argues that Respondent was operating a device or contrivance designed for flight in the air and, therefore, subject to Complainant’s regulatory authority. The term, “contrivance” is used in the 49 U.S.C. Section 40102(a)(6) definition, “aircraft”, whereas Part 1, Section 1.1, defines an “aircraft” as a “device”; however, the terms are basically synonymous, as both refer to an apparatus intended or used for flight.

“It is argued by Complainant that, under either definition of the term ‘aircraft’, the definition includes within its scope a model aircraft. That argument is, however, contradicted in that Complainant FAA has, heretofore, discriminated in his interpretation/application of those definitions.

“Complainant has, historically, in their policy notices, modified the term “aircraft” by prefixing the word “model”, to distinguish the device/contrivance being considered. By affixing the word “model” to “aircraft” the reasonable inference is that Complainant FAA intended to distinguish and exclude model aircraft from either or both of the aforesaid definitions of “aircraft”.

“To accept Complainant’s interpretive argument would lead to a conclusion that those definitions include as an aircraft all types of devices/contrivances intended for, or used for, flight in the air. The extension of that conclusion would then result in the risible argument that a flight in the air of, e.g., a paper aircraft, or a toy balsa wood glider, could subject the “operator” to the regulatory provisions of FAA Part 91, Section 91.13(a).”

FAA then appealed to the NTSB to hear the complaint. NTSB, which has always been strongly influenced by Washington politics, sided with FAA in a November 17, 2014 decision. NTSB link The dismissal was overturned and the case was remanded back to the AJ.

The ‘Aircraft’ FAA is Trying to Regulate

Below is a screen-capture of an online ad for the Zephyr II, a lightweight flying wing measuring less than five-feet in width. The plane consists mainly of two foam wing-halves (see the largest objects within the orange ellipse). The basic kit costs $130; the electric motor kit is an additional $140, and mounts safely behind the wing.

The whole UAV apparently weighs four- to five-pounds and can fly at speeds as slow as that of a fast human runner. And, the EPOR foam material is similar to the Styrofoam used to make cheap coolers, or the foam that lines a typical bicycle helmet. There does not appear to be a substantial safety hazard with this ‘aircraft’ design. It really does appear to fit better as a ‘model aircraft’ than as an ‘aircraft’ to be regulated under the FAR’s.

20141120cpy.. Zephyr II kit pic

Should this type of device be regulated? Yes, at least to the point where it needs to be used safely and without excessively encroaching on the freedoms of other people, which includes their privacy. But, frankly, FAA is the LAST AGENCY we should be using to enforce against potential misuse of foam model airplanes. We would be much better served if these low-altitude activities were kept below and away from real aviation activities, and if all issues were managed locally, by local codes and law enforcement personnel.

Some Background:

An excellent online article appears at personal-drones.net: Trappy and the FAA fine for flying over the University of Virginia. It includes a copy of the 3-minute video that started this brouhaha, and another video with some interesting perspective by a model airplane enthusiast. Both videos are embedded below.


The informative video rant below is by a lifelong RC hobbyist named XJET, a New Zealander who also has a website called rcmodelreviews.com.

Here is the text of a portion of XJET’s statement, beginning at 4:20 of the video:

“…The most dangerous thing you can do with a model aircraft apparently – and this is based on surveying all of the different airspace national administrators – the most dangerous thing you can do with a model aircraft is accept money for flying it. Honestly, that is because they all have a regulation that says, ‘you cannot accept money for flying a model aircraft.’

LadyBird-UAV (48gram quadcopter/camera)

Here is a picture showing the LadyBird UAV quadcopter … less than two ounces!

Once you accept a single red cent, for doing something with your model plane, it is no longer a model plane. It becomes an unmanned aerial system, and we have a list of regulations or policies this long you have got to comply with, and you can’t do a damned thing – you can’t fart, burp or dribble without our permission, if it involves an unmanned aerial system. It’s that stupid. Honestly, it is. And, in most countries, all unmanned aerial systems are treated equally. So, this little LadyBird – EPV LadyBird, 48 grams – if I fly this and someone pays me a cent to fly it, or I make a cent of income by flying it, it is treated exactly the same as if I were flying a predator drone over Afghanistan and blowing the snot out of insurgents on the ground below. Honestly, I kid you not. This is honestly the truth of the matter….”


See also: