Welcome to the Big Leagues

Written by Patrick Sherman Advanced Flight Technologies As seen in the November 2019 issue of Model Aviation.
the laanc system divides
The LAANC system divides the surface-level controlled airspace surrounding airports into a grid composed of 1-square-mile blocks. The number in each block corresponds with the maximum altitude above ground level that remote pilots are permitted to fly after receiving an automated authorization via a smartphone.

THE FAA HAS ANNOUNCED a major change in how recreational drone pilots and aeromodelers can access the National Airspace System (NAS). The good news is that people flying for fun have access to more sky than ever, even under Advisory Circular 91-57, which held sway from 1981 to 2015. The bad news is that you will have to take a couple of extra steps to get it.

What Has Changed?

Recreational pilots can now access airspace that is controlled down to the surface, which surrounds any airport with an active control tower. This opens a huge number of new locations for aeromodeling, particularly in cities with major airports where flying was not previously permitted.

To accomplish this, you will use the same system as licensed commercial drone operators, the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC), to obtain authorization for flights in controlled airspace.

In addition, you are now able to fly in any and all Class G airspace, which covers the majority of the surface area of the US. Gone are the days when you could not fly within 5 miles of any airport without contacting the control tower or the airport manager, which could be a serious impediment at small or private airports that do not maintain regular business hours.

These changes are the result of Section 349 of the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 and fall within Section 44809 of Title 49 of the U.S. Code, describing the "exception for limited recreational operations of unmanned aircraft."

Frequently Asked Questions

I fly model airplanes, not drones. Does this apply to me?

Yes. The FAA does not distinguish between your painstakingly detailed, homebuilt P-51 and the latest and greatest aerial imaging platform to come out of China. Both are a "contrivance invented, used, or designed to navigate or fly in the air" and subject to the same rules when flown for recreational or hobby purposes. The law recognizes both model airplanes and drones as aircraft, similar to a Cessna 172 or an Airbus A380.

Does this mean I need authorization from the FAA every time I want to go fly at my local AMA field?

No. First of all, many flying sites are located in Class G airspace, which is uncontrolled, and therefore, no permission is required regardless of where you are flying. Furthermore, under Section 44809, fixed model aviation flying sites are exempt, provided they are operating under the rules of a community-based organization such as the AMA and have determined mutually agreed-upon procedures.

Most AMA fields in controlled airspace already have such agreements in place. There are approximately 250 such sites across the US. If you have any doubts as to whether yours is one of them, check with one of your club’s officers or the AMA.

There is one additional advantage to flying from a fixed flying site. Provided that you are following the AMA Safety Code and have an AMA Large Model Aircraft Program permit, you are allowed to operate aircraft that weigh more than 55 pounds, which is the cutoff for commercial drone operations conducted under 14 CFR Part 107.

Tell me about this LAANC thing. How do I pronounce it again?

It is pronounced "Lance," like the long, pointy weapon carried by medieval knights on horseback. LAANC was originally developed for commercial drone pilots holding a Remote Pilot in Command certificate. Before the introduction of LAANC, obtaining permission to fly in controlled airspace had to be accomplished by corresponding with the FAA headquarters in Washington, D.C., and often took three months or longer.

LAANC makes most of that airspace available in real time via an app on a pilot’s smartphone. The surface-controlled airspace surrounding nearly 600 airports nationwide has been divided into 1-squaremile blocks. Each block is assigned a number that corresponds with the maximum altitude that unmanned aircraft are allowed to fly.

The highest number is 400 feet—the ceiling for drone operations in most instances. As you approach the airport, the numbers decrease until they reach zero, where no flight operations are permitted without a written request to the FAA and a lengthy clearance process. Now, as a recreational pilot, you have access to exactly the same system.

Download an app that provides LAANC access onto your smartphone. Many of them, such as AirMap, which is the one I use, are available for free. Go to the location where you intend to fly and launch the app. It will use your phone’s GPS to determine your location and reveal the LAANC grid in that area. Next, simply request permission to fly under the Section 44809 rules. Within seconds, you will receive a text message with an authorization number.

How will I know if I’m in Class G airspace and do not require authorization?

The app will tell you. There won’t be a LAANC grid at your location because no authorization is required before you fly.

Alternatively, you could learn to read sectional charts, which are old-school paper maps still widely used in aviation today. They can be challenging for beginners to understand, so it helps to have an experienced teacher, but it’s a rewarding process that will help you appreciate the complexity and effectiveness of the NAS.

This is great! As long as I’m in Class G airspace, I’m good to go, right?

Not so fast. All of the regular rules still apply. As model airplane or drone pilots, we are always required to yield the right-of-way to full-scale aircraft. We also need to be aware of Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) issued by the FAA. These are put in place around wildfires, major sporting events, presidential and vice-presidential visits, and other sensitive activities, and preclude all unauthorized flights.

Furthermore, many small airports are located in Class G airspace. That means, theoretically, that you could walk right up to the fence line and fly your model airplane. However, I can’t think of a worse place to go flying for fun. Occasionally, while conducting commercial operations, I fly in situations such as this, but it requires a lot of planning, coordination, and specialized equipment to do it safely.

the airmap app reveals hobbyists
As the AirMap app reveals, hobbyists and other recreational pilots are now able to fly up to 300 feet above ground level in the Folcroft neighborhood, which is slightly more than a mile from the Philadelphia International Airport, by using the LAANC system to obtain an immediate authorization.

As always, use your best judgment. Imagine that something goes wrong and you are confronted by the police, a newspaper reporter, or an FAA flight inspector. What explanation would you offer for the choices you made, and how would that reflect on you? Flying is a privilege. Treat it like one.

Let’s say I’m doing some "recreational" drone flying in my neighborhood and I happen to take a couple of pictures of my neighbor’s house. It turns out that she’s moving, so I sell her a few of my photos for her real estate agent to use. That’s okay, right?

pproximately 250 fixed flying sites
There are approximately 250 fixed flying sites for model aircraft in the US that fall within controlled airspace but have worked with the FAA to coexist on mutually agreeable terms. If one of them is yours, you don’t require authorization to fly there.

No. In fact, it’s a pretty terrible idea. The FAA has an extremely broad definition of commercial operations. If money changes hands, that’s clearly a commercial undertaking, even if the opportunity emerges after the fact, as in this case. Even if you volunteer your services, such as searching for a missing child or helping Habitat for Humanity plan a new neighborhood, it is regarded as a commercial operation and you are required to be certified under 14 CFR Part 107.

Additionally, if you are conducting a commercial operation under the guise of hobby flying and something goes wrong, you will not be covered by your AMA insurance. Only specialized aviation liability protection will cover you.

If you want to further your skills and use them to help people, seek out training and become a licensed commercial operator. Even if you never make any money, it's rewarding to do something you love while helping others.


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Great article but isn't saying that I can fly my R/C Glider in any Class G airspace in direct conflict with the Public law since the law states that there is not anywhere that I can fly above 400' AGL? Class G airspace which normally goes up to but not including 700' or 1,200' and in some cases up to 14,500'? Thanks Curtis 45 years of model flying and >12,000 hours as a full scale ATP Pilot

Hi Curtis. The FAA has just created a process to allow operations at fixed AMA flying sites to occur over 400’. Each flying site will have to go through a Safety Risk Mitigation process to determine associated risks and possible mitigation for those risks. AMA and the FAA just completed the first four flying sites last week, and all four sites obtained authorization to fly up to the altitude they requested. We expect to continue this process with the remaining AMA clubs after the new year.

This will help you find AMA flying sites. https://www.modelaircraft.org/club-finder

Regulation in general is not a good thing-Usually the next step in a multi-stage environment is denial , and or confiscation-this historically has been the record-The FAA ought to learn to regulate the real-life industry as it refers to civil and commercial aircraft-apparently with the recent loss of life of two airliners, they are not looking too good right now-we should never have ton allowed their incursion into our balsa-foam world-this is what we get when we allow incompetent people to make decisions for us

“incompetent people” Are you talking about the FAA or AMA or both?

I live approx 4 miles from the albany ny international airport. Which app should I use to better suit my flying for fun? And can you tell me when I would need to use the app for permission to fly as I'm not sure now, with the confusing new rules, how far from the airport I can fly without needing to use the app for permission?

Hi Glenn! Apps like AirMap, KittyHawk, and UASidekick can be used for recreational flying and LAANC authorization. If you need to determine if you’re flying in controlled airspace and need authorization, please visit https://faa.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=9c2e4406710048e19806ebf6a06754ad.

I fly in AZ and WI In wisconsin, Until we had to make a written agreement with MWC & UAS airports they didn't even know we were there for the last 50+ years. I believe all Registered Model Flying Fields should have a 1/2 Mile radius restricted airspace or at least an Alert Area designation. Check sub part (b) According to Scottsdale FSDO, open air assembly of persons,is anything from 33000 people at a fair or 2 People on a blanket having a Picnic. So full scale planes must be 1000' above an active Model Field. § 91.119 Minimum safe altitudes: General. Except when necessary for takeoff or landing, no person may operate an aircraft below the following altitudes: (a) Anywhere. An altitude allowing, if a power unit fails, an emergency landing without undue hazard to persons or property on the surface. (b) Over congested areas. Over any congested area of a city, town, or settlement, or over any open air assembly of persons, an altitude of 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal radius of 2,000 feet of the aircraft. (c) Over other than congested areas. An altitude of 500 feet above the surface, except over open water or sparsely populated areas. In those cases, the aircraft may not be operated closer than 500 feet to any person, vessel, vehicle, or structure. (d) Helicopters, powered parachutes, and weight-shift-control aircraft. If the operation is conducted without hazard to persons or property on the surface -

What entity is responsible for enforcing the new restrictions?

Hi Bob! FAA Flight Standards is responsible for enforcement.

Apparently gliders lose. We lost flying off dams long ago. No danger to others if we could fly off dams. Now we can’t seek thermals above 400’. We need to be able to TFR airspace above our flying fields higher than 400’

Looking at developing a private airfield for personal use. I would also like to use the adjacent taxiway to my hanger for use by a AMA RC club as their runway. How do these rules apply? The airfield would be in class G airspace.

No additional requirements would be in place to fly from a fixed location in uncontrolled airspace. The only time an additional requirement would be in place is if you wish to fly over 400’ from this location. This 400’ altitude waiver would require a letter of agreement with the FAA.

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