NTSB judge strikes down $10,000 fine against man for unlicensed “commercial use.”
In 2011, Raphael Pirker used a RiteWing Zephyr II remote-controlled flying wing to record aerial video of a hospital campus for use in a television advertisement. That act resulted in the Federal Aviation Administration issuing a fine to Pirker of $10,000 for that commercial use of an unmanned aircraft. But now an administrative judge with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has struck down that fine, contending that FAA regulations can’t be applied to the styrofoam drone Pirker flew.
Pirker, an Austrian who lives in Hong Kong, is also known as “Trappy” of Team BlackSheep – The R/C Daredevils, a company that specializes in creating “first-person view” aerial video with remote-controlled aircraft. In November of 2010, he posted a video filmed from a drone flying over New York City—including a close buzz of the Statue of Liberty. Law enforcement did not interfere with Pirker, and he even gave the New York Police Department and the National Parks Service a shout-out for “staying friendly, professional, and positive.” But the FAA was not amused.
The Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), which lobbies for “model aviators” and acts as a liaison to the FAA for them, was also taken aback by how close Pirker’s remote aircraft—flown in first-person view mode from a distance—came to buildings, ships, bridges, and a national landmark. In a statement for the AMA, spokesperson Rich Hanson said, “The nature of the flight was outside the realm of recreational aeromodeling activity as defined by the AMA Safety Code and posed a significant threat to people and property.”
In the case of the Virginia flight, Pirker allegedly flew his styrofoam plane within 100 feet of an active helicopter pad and 20 feet above a crowded street. The FAA claimed one person had to take “evasive maneuvers” to avoid being hit by the plane, and the administration issued its fine for operating the drone “in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.”
But on Mar 6, 2014, NTSB administrative law judge Patrick Geraghty ruled in favor of Pirker, stating in his decision that at the time Pirker recorded the video, “there was no enforceable FAA rule or [Federal Aviation Regulation], applicable to model aircraft or for classifying model aircraft as [an unmanned aerial system, or drone].” By the FAA’s interpretation of regulations, he wrote, “The extension of that conclusion would then result in the risible argument that a flight in the air of… a paper aircraft, or a toy balsa wood glider, could subject the ‘operator’ to the regulatory provisions of FAA [regulations].”