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United States Helicopter Safety Team
Mark Colborn is a Senior Corporal and Instructor Pilot for the Dallas Police
Department Helicopter Unit, Colborn is also a retired Chief Warrant Officer
Four (CW4) and former UH-60L Blackhawk Standardization Instructor Pilot
and Safety Officer for the Texas Army National Guard. Frequently sought out
due to his aviation knowledge, Colborn also writes for multiple publications
and is a member of the USHST Join Helicopter Safety Analysis Team (JHSAT.)
400 Feet and Below
For many years, we helicopter pilots
enjoyed almost exclusive use of the
airspace, except around airports,
but not anymore. The proliferation
of radio-controlled quad-rotor
drones has had a profound effect on
our perspective of control.
Over the years we have always
had to share the space with kites,
model airplanes, and birds. Risk
wise, the bird population appears
to be on the rise and reflects in the
yearly bird strike reports. Also, a
plethora of antenna towers, power
lines, trees, and buildings all lie
below 400 feet. It is not a friendly
environment in which to operate,
and admittedly, drones add an
increased level of risk.
So how serious is the drone
problem? It depends on whom you
talk to. If you believe the drone
sales figures, there should be
drones littering the skies.
Realistically, attrition is a great
hunter of drones, and that is
speaking from experience. To get a
more accurate picture, it is best to
ignore sales figures. Most drones
used by inexperienced operators
crash very quickly and end up
sitting on a shelf in the garage.
The Department of Transportation
(DOT), specifically the FAA, in late
2015 cited a collection of 764
“drone sightings” to justify a quick
implementation of a new drone
The reports understandably got the
attention of members of Congress.
Several members immediately
opined to the press that it was not
a question of if, but when a drone
brings down an airliner, two years
later, thankfully, we have not seen
that take place.
Panic notwithstanding, the Academy
of Model Aeronautics reviewed
those reports and discovered
that only 27 contained the explicit
notation of a near miss or near
collision (or NMAC in FAA reporting
speak). Moreover, in only 10 or those
reports, did pilots have to take any
evasive action. The rest of the reports
were primarily sightings or alleged
sightings of drones operating legally
below 400’ AGL (not within the vicinity
of an airport). Pilots did not even
report many of these alleged sightings.
The requirements pushed out quickly
for drones registered, required each to
have an FAA issued number to identify
it put on the body of the drone to
assist in identifying owners of drones
that operate in an unsafe manner.
I challenge any aircraft pilot traveling
between 100 and 230 knots to read
the tiny numbers on a drone in the
split second it occupies their vision.
Attaching an ID on a drone will only
help the FAA identify the culprit that
causes the first (and yet to occur)
collision between a manned aircraft
and a drone.
Couple that with the fact that this is
a user installed number that could be
written in black marker, hardly useful
in a situation that may involve jet
That said, any hobby or profession
has its share of bad apples. There
are two types of drone operators
1) those that try to fly as high as they
can with no regard for the 400’ AGL
2) those that choose to fly near busy
airports or in restricted airspace.
These FAA rule and policy violators,
will not likely rush out to register
their drones if they intend on
operating however they choose,
without regard for regulations.
The registration of over one million
drones, however, is now a moot
point. John A. Taylor, a model aircraft
enthusiast, and insurance lawyer,
recently challenged the DOT’s drone
registration in federal court and won.
The Court of Appeals for the District
of Columbia ruled that the registration
rule, as it applies to model aircraft,
violates Section 336 of the FAA
Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.
That statute prohibits the FAA “from
promulgating any rule or regulation
regarding model aircraft.” Therefore,
until Congress drafts new legislation
changing this law, the FAA cannot
force hobbyists to register their RC
Will the Taylor decision also affect
the FAA’s ability to enforce airspace
violations, especially if the hobbyist
is not creating a hazard to manned
aircraft? I believe it will. Enforcement
of regulations directed at errant drone
operators is spotty at best.
The FAA received numerous
allegations about the flamboyant
YouTube technology promoter, Casey
Neistat, flying drones for commercial
purposes in controlled airspace over
New York City.
Nearly every case was dismissed
because of a lack of evidence. Despite
actual videos that show Neistat flying
the drones, FAA policy requires
another form of proof to support
enforcement action (specifically, an
eye witness). Casey now admits he is
on notice and has since ceased flying
in the city.
The rules are clear for commercial
operators, but the rules for hobbyists
are still, well, up in the air - so to
speak. Only time will tell.
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