photo of SAF - Santa Fe Municipal Airport
SAF – Santa Fe Municipal Airport

If you have somehow found your way here looking for clarity… As of June, 2017:

  • If you are a hobbyist (model) you need to contact the airport if you are within five (5) miles.
  • If you are flying under Part 107, DO NOT contact the tower.

Drone360 has a good explanation here.

The following is one of more popular posts – lots of good info but not necessarily the right thing to do.

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Understanding what an air traffic controller or airport personnel needs to know will greatly improve your chances of getting what you want – clearance to fly.

I’ve spent the better part of my life flying tactical military jets, where communication brevity on the radio is essential. When you’re traveling at 9 miles a minute, you don’t use two words when one will do. So you learn to be accurate, precise, and efficient.

This experience built a lot of good habits, ones that help me when I am flying drones near airports, and that will help you. Because understanding what an air traffic controller or airport personnel needs to know will greatly improve your chances of getting what you want – clearance to fly.

As a responsible drone operator, you want to make sure that you comply with the web of laws that govern flying. Multi-Rotors (MRs) are far less likely to be operating from fixed sites or club fields than other types of small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS). Because of that, we may find ourselves flying in close proximity to one of the thousands of small airports around the country. Whether flying recreationally or commercially, the law requires that you must get permission from airports when flying within five miles of them.

In the remainder of this article, I’ll briefly cover the applicable laws and regulations, help you figure out who you need to contact, talk about what information they need, and then cover how to give it to them precisely and efficiently. You’ll also sound cool doing it … and who doesn’t like that?

“Drone” Terminology
Don’t get wrapped around an axle on terminology. A “drone,” “quad,” “MR,” an “RC airplane,” “RC helicopter,” a “traditional model aircraft,” or anything else can be a “model aircraft” under the law. To the FAA, they’re all sUAS. It’s how you fly and what you do with it that’s more important.

Two “Must Do’s”
Now, before we get too far into this, let me give you two “foot stomper” points.

First, you have to register with the FAA. The FAA has made this very easy.

Second, do your homework! If you trudge out to the field and then realize you have to notify airports, you’re going to be frustrated. As the old adage goes, “Prior Planning Prevents Pi** Poor Performance.” So let’s get started.

Understand the Law: Recreational Fliers (PL112-95 Section 336 / 14 CFR 101.41)
There’s two options here. One I’ll call the “Pay $5 and fly,” and the other option is to operate as a “Model Aircraft.” In the end though, they’re pretty close.

Both require airport notifications if flying within five miles, require you follow community-based safety guidelines, require you to ALWAYS give way to manned aircraft, and require you to maintain visual line of sight to your sUAS.

Contrary to what the Academy of Model Aeronautics is telling people, the FAA has made it clear that you do not need to be a member to fly a sUAS under 55lbs as a “model aircraft”.

The only real difference is that if you want to fly something greater than 55lbs or over 400′, you can do it while flying as a “model aircraft.” However, the law requires that the sUAS be certified by a Community Based Organization (CBO). And on that point, you have to join the AMA (there are two others), as they’ve said they will not certify non-member sUAS’.

One last point. Starting at the bottom of page 13 in the FAA’s “Interpretation of the Special Rule on Model Aircraft,” they said that:

If you notify, the airport objects, and you fly anyway – they would consider that endangering the National Airspace System (NAS).

And under PL112-95 Section 336(b) and/or 14 CFR 101.43, FAA can enforce against model aircraft operators who endanger the NAS. You can look it up and read it for yourself. I’ve concluded that the airport gets 51% of the vote. So if they object, I don’t fly.

It appears that once again the FAA has managed to create two separate sets of rules to do the same things. The Model information above is correct.

Understand the Law: Commercial Fliers (14 CFR 107)

https://www.faa.gov/uas/faqs/#pawe  See Airspace:

  1. How do I request permission from Air Traffic Control to operate in Class B, C, D, or E airspace? Is there a way to request permission electronically?
    You can request airspace permission through an online web portal, which will be available on the FAA’s UAS website on the effective date of the rule, August 29, 2016.

  2. Can I contact my local air traffic control tower or facility directly to request airspace permission?
    No. All airspace permission requests must be made through the online portal.

FAA Powerpoint slide #11


We are interpreting this as a change in procedure (i.e. permission through a web portal instead of from the tower.) Not a change in the requirement to request authorization.

14 CFR 107.41 states:

“No person may operate a small unmanned aircraft in Class B, Class C, or Class D airspace or within the lateral boundaries of the surface area of Class E airspace designated for an airport unless that person has prior authorization from Air Traffic Control (ATC).”

Note the part that says “…unless that person has prior authorization.” That means they have to say yes. If they don’t, and you fly anyway, guess what? You’re violating the Federal Air Regulations. FAA can take enforcement action on you. But most importantly, you may be endangering people flying in the area. FAA doesn’t take kindly to that. So you ask and they say no, don’t argue or try and force it.

Ask “What would it take to get a ‘yes?”

While we believe the rest of the article provides valuable advice and useful techniques for anyone flying a sUAS, and that the same information will be required for the online authorization, the specific actions are for those flying recreationally (as models.)

Who to notify?

Screen shot B4UFLY, Santa Fe Municipal Airport
Screen shot B4UFLY, Santa Fe Municipal Airport

To determine if your flying location is within five miles of an airport, the B4UFly application for iPhone and Android is an excellent tool. There is a cool planning feature that allows you to check ahead of time and identify the airports in the vicinity of your proposed flying site. Use it and get the three letter identifier and the name for each one. Unfortunately, the application doesn’t give you contact info, so we’ll get that elsewhere.

Now, a note of warning. It is entirely possible that the B4UFly application will show other airspace restrictions at your planned flying site. I won’t sugar coat it, some of these can be show stoppers. Oftentimes they’re in the form of Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs), but there can be others. While many TFRs support VIP movements, they can also be for wildfire fighting, national security, or even the blanket TFRs around Disney and major sporting events. If the B4UFly identifies additional airspace restrictions, understand them and comply. If you don’t, you could be breaking the law.

If B4UFly identifies additional airspace restrictions, understand them and comply. If you don’t, you could be breaking the law.

Screen grab for SAF from airnav.com
Screen grab for SAF from airnav.com

Once I have the identifiers and names, I go to www.airnav.com. The website will give you way more info than you need. Click on the “Airport” tab, and type in the three letter identifier you got from the B4UFly app. Scroll down to the “Airport Ownership and Management” section, and there you’ll find phone numbers.

Give them a call, and don’t be shocked if they seem surprised. In my case, I just started with “I’m trying to comply with the law.” After explaining the requirements of the law, I asked “How do you want me to notify?” I asked if they’d agree to a written Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), but they said they wanted calls each time. So that led quickly to “Who do you want me to call?” If you find yourself asked to do the same, I’d recommend saying these calls may be on weekends or after hours, which will help them give you the right number.

In my case, they gave me the number for the control tower. It was a bit of a surprise, but given the small airport, I guess it makes sense. When I asked about a good number for the hospital heliport, the airport manager said “We provide traffic service for them, so a call to us takes care of that as well.” Now that was a bit of good news! I will add that by the end of the call, they were genuinely grateful that I was trying to do the right thing. 

What the Airport / Air Traffic Controllers Want to Know
In December of 2015, the FAA Director of Air Traffic Procedures sent a memorandum to Air Traffic Organization Service Centers, Area Directors, and FAA controlled and contracted towers.

While that memo specifically dealt with information requested for those operating as a “model aircraft,” it is a good basis for the information I think they will want regardless of whether you’re flying recreationally or commercially.

In that memo, the FAA Director if Air Traffic Procedures gave eight pieces of information they’d like to get from anyone flying an sUAS:

  1. Name of caller
  2. Caller’s phone number
  3. UAS Registration number, if available
  4. Location of operation
  5. Start time / date of operation
  6. Description of UAS, if needed
  7. Duration of operation
  8. Maximum operating altitude

Being Professional (and sounding cool at the same time)
As you gather the info to answer each of this points, I strongly suggest that you learn to put it into the language of aviation.

When you’re making a notification, whether it’s going to airport staff or tower controllers, it’s a professional communication, not unlike the radio communications between manned aircraft and ground facilities. The people to whom you’re talking are accustomed to getting information in the language of aviation, so make it easy for them.

But what does that mean?

Well, direction relative to an airport is measured in degrees magnetic FROM the airport. Distances are measured in nautical miles, and anything spelled is done using the AVIATION phonetic alphabet which is different from the one used by law enforcement.

  • Figure out how to spell your name and practice.
  • Same for your FAA registration number.

Passing information to them in this way makes a difference, trust me. The controllers and airport staff are wired to consume information in this language, so make it easy on them.

1&2 | Name of caller & caller’s phone number
My local tower cab asks for this about half the time. Just this past weekend, they didn’t ask on Saturday, but did on Sunday (even after recognizing me as the “guy who called yesterday”). I’ve never been asked for first name, just last name and cell number. Give them your name and number phonetically. After many years of flying, I can rattle off my name phonetically “Mike, Echo, Lima, Lima, Oscar, Tango, Tango” just as fast as you read this. Do you think they notice? Yep. Do you think this makes me a more credible caller? Yep. Does it give them the impression I’m professional? Yep.

Promptly answering whatever number you provide is important, as they are likely calling you with a safety of flight issue. It’s never ever happened to me, but give some thought as to how you’d answer.

3 | UAS Registration number, if available
Most all of my stuff is above the .55 pound limit, which means I’m registered and my sUAS are marked. Although I’m prepared to give the number, phonetically, I’ve never been asked. Your situation may be different though, so be ready.

4 | Location of operation

Screen grab showing Lat/Lon for SAF on airnav.com
Screen grab showing Lat/Lon for SAF on airnav.com

While you’re on the AIRNAV site for the field, grab the latitude and longitude of the field. When flying full scale, we reference our position relative to some defined airfield, navigation aid, or landmark (depending on the type flying). Why not do the same?

Giving them a street address is not worth a lot, as all that does is make them go through the effort to figure it out based on bearing and distance. Is making it more difficult on them going to help you? Nope. So make it easy!

map showing SAF bearing 80 degrees at 1.65nm
SAF bearing 080 degrees at 1.6 nm

Take the lat/long of the airport and the lat/long of your flying field and determine your magnetic bearing and distance (in nautical miles) from the airport. At less than five miles, granted there’s little difference between statute miles and nautical miles, but why not do it right and show them that you’re professional enough to put in the correct aviation units?

I used a handheld GPS, but websites like www.sunearthtools.com/tools/distance.php work too.

SAF on Google Maps
SAF on Google Maps

Since controllers also use landmarks, especially for pilots flying VFR, pull up a satellite picture of your field and get a rough estimate of your location based on a nearby landmark that’s easily visible from the air.

So you’ve got all the information, now comes putting it together in a sentence. In my case, it sounds something like this:

“I’m zero eight zero at one point six from you, or 500 feet west of Capitol High School.”

Think of it from their perspective…now if there’s a light civil coming my way, the controller easily notify them: “Caution, low altitude UAS traffic just west of the high school” or “Caution, low altitude UAS traffic 1.6 miles east of the field.”

When the tower can provide accurate information like this to other pilots, I think it increases the likelihood that the full scale pilot will know that the sUAS operator did the right thing.

I also think this is a way to reduce the likelihood of false near miss reports – and that’s good for all of us!

5 | Start time / date of operation
I try to be honest and reasonable. I don’t tell them it’s going to be all day if that’s not true. Using these reports as a “wedge” to make their life difficult only makes it difficult on the entire sUAS community.

6 | Description of UAS, if needed
This isn’t about putting yourself on report, it’s about helping full scale pilots be a partner in the whole “see and avoid” process that’s critical to flight safety.

I think about how someone not familiar with my sUAS would describe it. Ask your kids or your spouse to describe it – that’s a great start. You want a description that will help a full scale pilot spot it. Fixed wing, single rotor helicopter, or multi-rotor for example. Give the predominant primary and secondary colors. If an MR, what color is the body? The props? You get it. Don’t over think it.

7 | Duration of operation
Just like the start time and date above, please be honest and reasonable. Sure you can pad your time a bit to be on the safe side, but don’t use it as a “wedge.” It doesn’t help you get approval and it doesn’t help the rest of us either.

8 | Maximum operating altitude
I don’t think it helps anyone to call and try and assert some right to fly at altitudes you have no hope of reaching. I fly RC helicopters mostly these days, and thus I rarely go above 200 feet. So I tell them that. Could I say 400? Could I say 1000? Sure, but what purpose does it serve? It only makes it more difficult for me to get what I want (no objection from them) and a quick and easy phone call. Just like others above, be honest and reasonable. Pad a bit to be safe, but be reasonable.

Final Thoughts
I’ll stress again, these notifications aren’t social calls. They’re safety of flight communications not unlike any number of required radio calls when flying full scale aircraft.

You’re required by law to do them.

For the controllers you are interacting with it’s about accuracy, brevity, and efficiency. Putting your information in the language of aviation makes it easy for them to consume. And making it easy for them, makes it easier for them to say “yes.”

These notifications are also an opportunity to put a positive face on our flying and create a positive impression.

Being professional helps you get the clearances that you need and helps to preserve our right to fly.

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 US Navy Commander. He is a graduate of the US Navy’s Aviation Safety and Test Pilot Schools and has almost 3,000 hours in over 30 types of aircraft, mostly in carrier-based tactical jets. His final tour was as the deputy commander of a US Navy master jet base.
Frank is a regular contributor at the DroneBusiness.center. He is a member of our consulting team and is available to work with companies evaluating, planning or managing an internal drone operation.  
He is an expert on applying the High Reliability and Safety principles from carrier Naval Aviation to industrial situations, and has extensive experience with safety program management, training, operations, aviation policy making and implementation, and standard operating procedure development.