About 70 percent of the U.S. population lives within 20 miles of one of the 30 major airports. With over 13,000 airports in the United States today, there is a very good chance you live or work within five miles of one of these smaller airports. The FAA Modernization and Reauthorization Act of 2012 made it a requirement for hobbyist drone operators to contact the airport management and the air traffic control tower (if one is on the airfield) if operating within five miles of an airport. The notification requirement, now codified under Part 101 (Special Rule for Model Aircraft), provides an opportunity for unsafe drone operations to be disapproved. Alerting the airport and air traffic controllers also provides an opportunity for manned aircraft to have greater awareness of your operation.
The FAA has recently announced new guidance on how hobbyists contact airports and air traffic controllers. This guidance also includes helpful information on what questions these officials will ask and how they have the authority to disapprove a flight they feel may be unsafe.
To qualify as a hobbyist drone operator, which is also known as a recreational or model aircraft operator, you must meet all of the following requirements:
You must obtain a remote pilot certificate with a small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) rating and comply with Part 107 (Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems) if you do not meet each of these five requirements and your aircraft weighs less than 55 pounds. For more information about obtaining a remote pilot certificate with a small UAS rating, see AOPA’s Guide to Remote Pilot Certification.
It can be difficult to determine if you are near an airport unless you are familiar with the area. Drone operators should always conduct a thorough preflight and determine where the closest airports are to decide if notification is required and to be aware of where manned aircraft may be operating. Drone operators must also be familiar with other locations where drone operations are prohibited, such as near the White House and Capitol. There are several methods for finding out where the nearest airport is and if your location is legal:
If you determine your location is legal for drone operations but is within five miles of an airport, the next step is to contact the airport manager or airport operations. The contact information for every airport is publicly available, including the phone number normally used for airport operations and the manager. These individuals would be able to speak to you about drone operations. AOPA has a user-friendly search engine that provides the phone number for the airport manager (at the very bottom of the airport’s information page) and is usually the best place to start when you have determined you need to call.
The airport manager or employee will likely be interested in the following information:
Airport management may not say the drone operation is approved, but all that is required is notification for drone operations to take place. If the airport says the operation may be unsafe or that they disapprove it, you should fly in another location where you do not need the airport’s approval or where the airport operator states would be acceptable. The FAA has stated that the agency “would consider flying model aircraft over the objections of FAA air traffic or airport operators to be endangering the safety of the NAS.” Additionally, the FAA may take enforcement action against a drone pilot who has an FAA-issued certificate, such as a private pilot certificate.
Air traffic control numbers are not publicly available, so the best way to find this number at an airport is to get in touch with the airport manager and ask if there is a control tower and what the phone number is. It is important to call ahead as airport managers are not normally available 24 hours a day and usually have many responsibilities. Air traffic controllers also can be very busy, so there may be cases in which controllers ask you to call an administrative number, which may result in your drone flight being delayed unless you have provided some lead time to allow them to respond.
Air traffic control is responsible for collecting the following information when contacted:
Current FAA guidance states “when notified of a model aircraft operation, the ATC manager or airport management may deny operations if they impact the safety of other operations at the airport. Specific reasons for the objection should be provided to the person notifying the ATCT [Air Traffic Control Tower] or airport management at the time of the request and documented.” The FAA requires controllers to record any drone activity and any operational issues that it causes. Air traffic control will not use the word “approved” in communication with a hobbyist operator but the lack of a denial constitutes the operation may proceed.
If a hobbyist or group of hobbyists wishes to fly near or on an airport on a long-term basis, the FAA recommends formulating a letter of agreement to establish the procedures and reduce the workload for both parties. A letter of agreement usually states where the hobbyists can fly, any restrictions, what notification requirements exist, and any other procedures. A letter of agreement can be established with the airport operator and, if applicable, the air traffic control facility. An example letter of agreement with air traffic control and additional information on the process is provided by the FAA.
Air traffic control managers or airport management concerned about unsafe drone operations should contact the local FSDO and local law enforcement immediately. The FAA has published guidance and a list of frequently asked questions for law enforcement personnel who may deal with drones that are being flown in an unsafe manner.
The FAA has made it clear in various guidance and policies that the distance is measured in statute miles when it is referring to when a drone operator must contact the airport and the air traffic control tower (if the airport has one).
The FAA has interpreted the notification of a drone operator that it may be unsafe to fly as official notification that the operation could be perceived as reckless. It is possible law enforcement could be called if a flight takes place after the operation has been denied due to safety reasons by air traffic control or airport management. The FAA may take enforcement action against those pilots who fly recklessly. Drone operators should not be denied unless there is a safety or operational issue that prevents the flight from being compatible with the airspace. Operators may question the response they have been given by contacting an FAA FSDO.
The current requirement only requires the drone operator to provide prior notice, which a voicemail or email would be considered to provide. Best practice would be to allow enough time for the airport or air traffic facility to respond so that they can notify you whether your operation is safe or hazardous based on the type of activity and location you have chosen. Flying within three miles of airport should take place only after two-way communication has been established due to the higher probability for low-flying manned aircraft in these areas.
Model aircraft clubs have been flying on airports safely for decades. It is very important that the hobbyist meet with the airport manager to discuss this possibility and to understand how busy the airport is. Drone pilots should not expect permission to fly on the airport if it is busy. The hobbyist will likely be required to enter into a written agreement discussing how to operate safely.
Airport managers should only approve drone operations if they will not have a safety or operational impact to manned aircraft. It is not necessary to request a notam or to post a drone activity message on the AWOS unless you feel there could be the possibility for a conflict. Drone operators are responsible for looking for and always giving way to manned aircraft. Air traffic control may have requirements to make announcements over the radio to manned aircraft when drone activity is in the area.
Additional guidance for airport managers is provided by the FAA.
When flying near an airport it is best to be aware of the airport’s runway orientation and where manned aircraft will be flying. It is also helpful to have a radio and leave it on the unicom or tower frequency so you can be alerted when aircraft may be nearby. The FAA’s safety guidance for hobbyists also includes the following:
Yes, hobbyists can operate under Part 107 (Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems). This rule became effective August 29, 2016, and is applicable to small unmanned aircraft (weighing less than 55 pounds on takeoff, including everything that is on board or otherwise attached to the aircraft); however, hobbyists are explicitly not required to follow these regulations. It is important to be aware of all of Part 107’s rules if you choose to operate under this set of regulations versus Part 101. One of the requirements includes obtaining a remote pilot certificate.
A hobbyist may choose to operate under the requirements of Part 107 as it may be beneficial, for example there is no requirement to operate under any CBO guidelines or to notify nearby airports. Another benefit of operating under Part 107 is you can seek approval for access to certain airspace (Class B, C, D, and portions of E) via a process mostly automated. An operator can make this request to air traffic control via the FAA’s UAS website .
According to FAA guidance, “ATC services, inclusive of separation, are not provided to Part 101, Subpart E operators (also known as modelers/hobbyists).” Additionally, “Part 107 operations are not defined as VFR or IFR and require no separation or services by ATC.” Air traffic controllers may issue advisories to manned aircraft to make them aware of drone activity but will not separate aircraft from this activity.
Pilots can report a near miss or an incident to air traffic control by radio or on the ground by telephone. Pilots may also notify the FAA's 24-hour Regional Operations Center (ROC) and file an Aviation Safety Reporting System.