The FAA response

Good news! Flying your drone recreationally under the “model aircraft” rules just got a lot easier and a bit less expensive. While the AMA is telling people that you have to join their group to do that (and pay $75 a year), the FAA said this is not true. To fly drones recreationally you do not need to be a member of a private dues collecting organization – you just need to register with the FAA and fly!

As we discuss this, don’t get wrapped around an axle on terminology to describe what you’re flying. Whether an “drone,” “model aircraft,” “Quad,” “MR,” “aircraft,” or something else, those terms don’t matter. Similarly, some like to distinguish between “drones” and “traditional RC.” Those distinctions don’t matter either.

The only thing that does matter is the set of FAA rules under which you’re flying.

Jonathan Rupprecht just wrote a great post which makes this a bit clearer.

“The FAA considers everyone to be civil aircraft by default which means all the Federal Aviation Regulations apply. You either have to comply with them or fall into one of the exceptions: (1) Section 336 model aircraft status or (2) public aircraft operator status. The most common exception is the model aircraft status. If you are not in the model aircraft status, then you are a civil operator who has to comply with all the regulations, unless you meet public aircraft operator status.”

Registration – You MUST do it
First, and this is a foot-stomper, no matter what set of rules you’re following, you must register with the FAA.

Fortunately the “pay $5 and fly” system has made this very easy for recreational flyers

FAA-rulesAnything can operate as a “model aircraft”
Any sUAS can operate as a “model aircraft” provided they follow the rules for “model aircraft” operation.

Public Law 112-95 Section 336 (soon to be part 101.41 in the FARs) lists five conditions an operator must meet to fly something as a “model aircraft” under the law. These are listed in paragraphs (a)(1) through (a)(5).

Legal language can be ambiguous at times. While the FAA’s “Interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft” addressed many of the ambiguities around these five conditions, one not addressed was the one listed in paragraph (a)(2):

“the aircraft is operated in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines and within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization; [emphasis added]

So what does it mean to be “within the programming?” And what is a “community-based organization?”

In the conference report on PL112-95, a community-based organization (CBO) is defined as:

“…a membership based association that represents the aeromodeling community within the United States; provides its members a comprehensive set of safety guidelines that underscores safe aeromodeling operations within the National Airspace System and the protection and safety of the general public on the ground; develops and maintains mutually supportive programming with educational institutions, government entities and other aviation associations; and acts as a liaison with government agencies as an advocate for its members.”

And while this tells us what defines a CBO, it still does not define what it means to be “within the programming.”.

The AMA video says that you have to be an AMA member
[The video was posted June 24 2016] With a membership that has been declining for years, the AMA has a vested interest in getting you to join. Why? At a most basic level, it means more money for them! So it’s no wonder they want you to think you need to be a member to fly recreationally under Section 336. They’re being particularly bold about it too. Beginning at about the 35 second mark AMA Government & Regulatory Affairs representative Chad Budreau clearly states that “you have to join the AMA.

Note that being an AMA member does not get you out of having to register with the FAA.

The FAA says that AMA membership is NOT required!
I wanted to get a definitive answer to what it means to be “within the programming.” So I sent an email to the FAA UAS Integration Office asking them.

The FAA UAS Integration Office responded just a couple days later. As you can see in the screen capture of their response at the top of this post, they said:

“The FAA does not interpret PL 112-95 Section 336 (a) (2) as requiring membership in a CBO … You must only follow the guidelines of a CBO.”

So there it is, straight from the agency with the power to enforce. You DO NOT need to be a member of the AMA or any other CBO to fly as a “model aircraft.” Good news indeed!

In case you’re wondering, the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) is the largest and the most visible CBO, but there is also the Remote Control Aerial Platform Association (RCAPA) and the Drone User Group Network (DUG).

I am not saying that being a member of the AMA does not have not have it’s benefits. If you want to fly at most AMA fields, you have to be a member. Same for their competitions or fun fly events. Same for their insurance. And they do important work lobbying for the aeromodeling community. But not everyone flies from a club site, not everyone flies in their competitions, not everyone wants their insurance and not everybody wants to support their lobbying effort, so being a member is not for all of us. And if there’s no legal requirement to be a member, and you don’t need to be a member for some other reason, the $75 a year AMA charges is a lot of money.

Summary – what you have to do to fly as a “model aircraft”
Whether you fly a “drone,” a “model airplane,” “traditional RC,” a “model helicopter,” a “quad,” or anything else – if you want to fly under the “model aircraft” rules, all you have to do is:

  • Register with the FAA for $5
  • Follow 336 and comply with the CBO guidelines
  • Be safe, be sane and have fun
  • No membership required!
Commander Frank Mellott USN, Retired on his final flight
Commander Frank Mellott USN, Retired on his final flight
The author, Frank Mellott is a retired Navy flier and graduate of the US Navy’s Aviation Safety and Test Pilot Schools. His final tour was as the deputy commander of the US Navy’s west coast master jet base. He has almost 3,000 hours in over 30 types of aircraft, mostly in carrier-based tactical jets.
This is Frank’s first guest post for the DroneBusiness.center. He is an expert on applying the safety principles he developed and learned as a naval aviator to industrial situations and will be posting on issues of interest to companies who are considering or implementing drone programs. He is currently consulting with an oil company on the North Slope.