Long-Standing Legal Battle of Pirker vs. FAA Comes to Close

Posted by Betsy Lillian on January 23, 2015 No Comments
Categories : Policy & Regulations

The legal case of Raphael ‘Trappy’ Pirker, the lead pilot of drone company Team BlackSheep, against the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been settled.

Pirker has agreed to pay a fine of $1,100 through the settlement of the civil penalty proceeding, initiated by the FAA in 2013 concerning his flight of a model aircraft over a college campus in 2011.

Team BlackSheep says in a statement that the settlement does not constitute an admission of any of the allegations in the case or an admission of any regulatory violation.

In October 2011, Pirker flew – and received compensation for doing so – a styrofoam Ritewing Zephyr – over the University of Virginia campus to collect photos and video. The FAA ordered that Pirker pay a civil penalty of $10,000 for allegedly operating a UAS in a careless or reckless manner.

According to Team BlackSheep, the allegations of reckless behavior were incorrect, and it was clear that the FAA took action against Pirker because his flight was commercial in nature. In 2013, he decided to defend the case – with his lawyer Brendan Schulman of Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP – rather than pay the $10,000 fine.

The fine was dismissed after the judge compared Pirker’s unmanned aircraft to a model aircraft and found that the FAA had not enacted an enforceable regulation regarding such aircraft.

The FAA then appealed, and in November 2014, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reversed the judge’s decision and said the definitions of aircraft “are clear on their face” and fall under the same rules as manned aircraft. The NTSB affirmed the FAA’s position that unmanned aircraft meet the legal definition of “aircraft” and that the FAA may take enforcement action against anyone who operates a UAS or model aircraft in a careless or reckless manner.

Whether any aspect of the flight was actually “reckless” was not decided, according to Team BlackSheep. The NTSB Board did not comment on whether commercial use is or is not prohibited but did recognize a fundamental problem with the FAA’s current position: “certain provisions of the [federal aviation regulations] may not be logically applicable to model aircraft.”

The court documents state that “[Pirker] is resolving this matter to avoid the expense of litigation” and “will not contest the amount or validity of the settlement proceeds due under this agreement nor will he contest any of the factual allegations or findings of violation.”

The decision to settle the case was not an easy one, Team BlackSheep says, but the length of time that would be needed to pursue further proceedings and appeals – as well as the FAA’s new reliance on a statute that post-dates Raphael’s flight – has diminished the utility of the case to assist the commercial drone industry in its regulatory struggle.

Team BlackSheep’s full statement, as well as accompanying settlement agreement and court documents, can be found here.

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