When the bar is set to high, people will walk under it. (#PilotRule)

Congress Needs To Change UAV Pilot Requirement

The requirement for pilot certification for a small UAV operator which is applied to applicants for Section 333 exemption, is both unreasonable and unnecessary.


The FAA Exemption Authorizations under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 currently states:

Under this grant of exemption, a PIC must hold either an airline transport, commercial, private, recreational, or sport pilot certificate. ….   The PIC must also meet the flight review requirements specified in 14CFR §61.56 in an aircraft in which the PIC is rated on his or her pilot certificate.

As Florida aviation attorney and CFI Jon Rupprecht points out

“The FAA believes they are statutorily not allowed to exempt individuals from the pilot certificate. The FAA did not write those statutes, Congress did and [the FAA] didn’t change them.”

The FAA states their position on the issue this way:

“Section 333 does not provide flexibility for the statutory requirement to hold an airman certificate under §44711, which states that the PIC, who has final authority and responsibility for the operation and safety of the UAS flight, must possess the appropriate airman certificate as prescribed by 14 CFR part 61 for the proposed operation and the appropriate medical certificate as prescribed by 14 CFR part 67.”

In regard to the last part, the FAA regularly grants exemption to the medical requirement. But the main problem is, until sometime in 2017 or beyond, there is no appropriate airman certificate for UAV operators. A few recent 333 grants have included exemption to provide training, and hobbyists flying the same drones, are allowed to operate above 200 feet to 400 feet, and require no licensing or medical certificates. A point could be made that typical operations for public agencies, such as search and rescue or accident investigation, require more critical skills than taking pictures of real estate or farmland, and yet public agencies operating under a COA are allowed to “self-certify” their pilots.

Unofficially, some within the FAA will admit that the number of “legal” operators granted exemption under section 333, it ls likely that less than 20% hold a pilot’s license.  Many licensed pilots will admit they lack the UAV competence and skills of the average R/C flyer.  The picture is totally upside-down. More than a few licensed pilots are hesitant to connect their license with a “drone” business because any minor complaint about a drone could put a pilot’s license under suspension for review. Even if that review is only for a short time, if that pilot works for an airline or flight school, it’s game-over for their career.

Those spending up to $6,000 to earn a sport pilot license and another $1500-$5000+ for a suitable “drone”, will find it all but impossible to recover that investment competing with non-authorized “cowboys” who now “own” the market, charging $60 for a real estate “fly-over”, only to find the requirement will no longer exist in a matter of months.  With thousands of “legal” and illegal operators competing for market share, for many or most, the numbers simply don’t work.

It is understood that all drone operators, BOTH recreational and commercial, need to have a clear understanding of the national airspace system and safety. That knowledge can be verified by passing the FAA ground school written test for Sport pilot or above.  That should be sufficient. Why should it require a certified pilot just to operate a 4 pound quad-copter? Because Congress failed to take the other half of 44711 into consideration.

Requiring the operator to hire (and train) a certified pilot or go to the expense of completing pilot training and certification, is an unfair burden and expense to place on the UAV operator, already faced with overwhelming competition from unauthorized operators who openly scoff at the FAA’s authority. Enforcement is costly. The FAA is apparently unable or unwilling to do much beyond writing a very small number of warning letters for the most blatant offenders that are brought to their attention.  The problem is growing.

The current requirement for pilot certification for a small UAV operator which is applied to applicants for Section 333 exemption, is both unfair and unnecessary. It serves as both a barrier to serious potential operators and an excuse for “outlaw” operators, with little understanding of FAA regulations, restrictions and limitations, who currently clearly dominate the aerial video market.

Congress can fix it!

Congress was supposed to enact legislation to set the FAA’s funding levels and policy priorities (known as “re-authorization”) . TThe House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee announced that they were informed by the House (GOP) majority leader that consideration of the FAA re-authorization bill will be moved to September, then moved to February, then to March… The funding deadline is March 31, 2016. Several bills in both the House and Senate would replace the pilot rule with a written exam,m the logical solution and completely consistent with the NPRM. Finally, somebody gets it: when the bar is set too high (unreasonable) people tend to walk under it (ignore). Education is the basis of safety.

The authors of HR 4432 and S1819 get it. Hopefully, logic and reason will prevail in the final draft. We can only hope, but a call or letter to our local legislators and Senators wouldn’t hurt.  I met with my representative’s  advisor and wrote letters to my Senators and the members of the Transportation Committee.

The current authorization (the FAA Modernization & Reform Act) expires Sept. 30, and the later re-authorization legislation is introduced in the House and Senate, the more difficult it becomes for the two bodies to reach agreement in advance of the deadline. In that case, the current authorization could be extended to allow congressional negotiations to continue.

Public statements indicate congressional leaders are focused on unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

Congress needs to act when they take up the FAA Reauthorization Act to allow the FAA to waive the pilot certification requirements (49 USC §44711) for operators who can pass the FAA’s written exam for any grade of Sport Pilot and above and register with the TSA at any flight school.

Write or call your congressperson, especially if they are on the Transportation Committee, and request that the FAA be provided the necessary authority in the re-authorization, to waive or modify the pilot certification (Part 61.3) for exemptions under Section 333, to accept a passing written exam grade, and TSA registration with any CFI or flight school. It’s a simple solution, consistent with the proposed NPRM.

The Committee can be contacted HERE.

Tag your comment, support or response on Twitter: #PilotRule