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R/C Flight Video Over NYC Yields Cool Images, Concern

Zephyr Flight

December 9, 2010 —A group calling themselves “Team Black Sheep” filmed many of New York City’s most famous landmarks from a radio-controlled Ritewing Zephyr aircraft, which is often used by R/C enthusiasts. The video shows the aircraft zooming over such landmarks as the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty. While the pictures are stunning, some of the footage shows the aircraft flying within feet of apartment buildings, waterborne vessels, and the torch of the Statue of Liberty. That has raised controversy within the modeling community, which says the video could harm access to airspace.

Team Black Sheep member Raphael Pirker, who goes by the name “Trappy” in his blog, is quoted in various reports as saying he consulted local laws but did not consult air traffic officials before making the flights in New York, but limited the flights to times of the day when traffic was light. Police questioned Team Black Sheep and, according to Trappy, were curious about how the aircraft worked, but issued no charges. At the end of the video the team praised New York Authorities and the TSA for “staying strong, professional, and positive.”

Many modelers and the Academy of Model Aeronautics (which signed an MOA with EAA in 2010) were not happy about the flight. “New York City is one of the most contested Class B airspaces on the planet, and this guy pulls a stunt like this,” AMA Spokesperson Chris Brooks said.

The AMA, which publishes safety guidelines for R/C fliers, condemned the flight in a statement, saying “Although AMA recognizes the ingenuity and creativity of this activity, it does not condone the manner in which this flight was conducted and the threat it posed to the public.” On a wide range of discussion boards, debate also raged as many modelers lamented the possible threat to their airspace access if authorities take flights like this in the wrong context. 

The FAA includes R/C aircraft flown by modelers in its definition of Unmanned Aircraft Systems and states its “recreational use of the National Airspace System is covered by FAA Advisory Circular (AC) 91-57, which generally limits operations to below 400 feet above ground level and away from airports and air traffic.

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