In its decision regarding the March court case of Raphael Pirker, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has determined that operators of unmanned aircraft of all types are subject to the legal penalties the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) applies to operators of all aircraft.
According to the NTSB, “an ‘aircraft’ is any ‘device’ ‘used for flight in the air.’ This definition includes any aircraft, manned or unmanned, large or small.”
On Oct. 17, 2011, Raphael Pirker had flown – and received compensation for doing so – a Ritewing Zephyr over the University of Virginia campus to collect photos and video footage. The FAA ordered that Pirker pay a civil penalty of $10,000 for allegedly operating a UAS in a careless or reckless manner.
The FAA then appealed an NTSB administrative law judge's decision after the judge dismissed the FAA's order that Pirker pay the fine.
In the decision to dismiss the FAA’s fine, the judge compared Pirker's unmanned aircraft to a model aircraft and found the FAA had not enacted an enforceable regulation regarding such aircraft.
Now, the NTSB is siding with the FAA and says the definitions of aircraft “are clear on their face” and fall under the same rules as manned aircraft.
It claims “statutory and regulatory definitions, as well as Advisory Circular 91-57, and FAA Notice 07-01, contain no express exclusion for unmanned or model aircraft.”
“Even if we were to accept the law judge’s characterization of respondent’s aircraft, allegedly used at altitudes up to 1,500 feet [above ground level] for commercial purposes, as a ‘model aircraft,’ the definitions on their face do not exclude even a ‘model aircraft’ from the meaning of ‘aircraft,'” the NTSB says in court documents.
“Furthermore, the definitions draw no distinction between whether a device is manned or unmanned. An aircraft is ‘any’ ‘device’ that is ‘used for flight.’ We acknowledge the definitions are as broad as they are clear, but they are clear nonetheless.”
The NTSB says it has now served the FAA and Pirker with its opinion and order for the case. In the opinion, the board has remanded the case to the administrative law judge to collect evidence and issue a finding concerning whether Pirker's operation of his unmanned aircraft was careless or reckless.
In conclusion, the NTSB orders the following: “the Administrator’s appeal is granted; the law judge’s decisional order is reversed; and the case is remanded to the law judge for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion and Order.”
In a statement, the FAA says the NTSB affirmed the agency's position that UAS meet the legal definition of “aircraft” and that the agency may take enforcement action against anyone who operates a UAS or model aircraft in a careless or reckless manner.
According to the FAA, Pirker operated a UAS in a careless or reckless manner, and the proposed civil penalty should stand. The agency says it looks forward to a factual determination by the Administrative Law Judge on the “careless or reckless” nature of the operation in question.