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NTSB Rules on Drone Case

Supports FAA; Model Airplane Operators Subject to FARs

November 20, 2014 - On Tuesday the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) ruled on the FAA’s appeal in Huerta v. Pirker, a case in which the FAA levied a $10,000 fine against an operator of a camera-equipped model airplane for careless and reckless operation as well as illegally operating an aircraft for compensation. The case is the first attempt by the FAA to hold an operator of an unmanned aerial system (UAS) liable for violations of federal aviation regulations.

The full board found for the FAA, ruling that the administrative law judge who first heard the case had erred in finding that aviation regulations did not apply to Rafael Pirker’s alleged operations.

Pirker’s defense was focused on the nature of the device he was using to capture video of the University of Virginia’s campus in 2011. He was flying a 5-pound Ritewing Zephyr, a remote-control powered glider made primarily of Styrofoam, which he believed was a “model aircraft” and therefore not subject to regulations but instead governed by AC 91-57, which is advisory in nature and neither binding nor enforceable. The FAA disagreed and argued that, despite its size and the fact that it is a remote-control model airplane, the device was an “aircraft” and subject to Part 91 rules, which prohibit careless and reckless operation of an aircraft.

The first trial ended in victory for Pirker when an NTSB administrative law judge dismissed the FAA’s case, finding that the Zephyr was not an “aircraft” and that no enforceable regulations applied to UAS. On appeal, however, the full board, reversed the judge’s dismissal and found that, because the model aircraft met the broad statutory definition stating that “an aircraft is ‘any’ ‘device’ that is ‘used for flight,’” Pirker was subject to 14 CFR 91.13 in the same way he would be if he were piloting a manned airplane.

The board stated that the original judge “erred in presuming the regulations categorically do not apply to model aircraft. The plain language of the definitions and regulation at issue simply does not support such a conclusion.”

The full board did not determine whether Pirker had operated in a careless and reckless manner, and the case was remanded to the original administrative law judge who will make that determination. The full board declined to rule on the legality of the FAA’s distinction between commercial and hobbyist UAS operation. 

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