We have been looking at different areas around the western U.S. for possible relocation and retirement.
Looking at Walla Walla, WA, I was surprised to see this large restricted area around the Walla Walla Regional Airport, extending from the surface upwards, and about 7.4 miles southwest to 13.4 miles northeast of the airport and for about 4.4 miles either side of the airport – and astounding 183 square miles of controlled airspace over a rural area. The expansion was added in 2016 for an instrument approach corridor to the airport.
Walla Walla Regional Airport has 2 or 3 departures each day and 2 or 3 arrivals, all on Q400 turbo prop aircraft.
On the Seattle VFR sectional chart, the restricted area corresponds to the area marked off in a thin, dashed magenta line. As you can see, the restricted flight zone is so large it extends into Oregon.
“Controlled” airspace in this example means the air – from ground level upwards – is subject to FAA regulations. You cannot fly a toy quadcopter in your backyard 2 feet off the ground under a tree – the FAA controls the airspace in your backyard.
Hobbyists may fly at the local flying club’s model airfield, located in a city park but all other hobby flights within this airpspace are restricted as operation inside controlled airspace.
For all other flights, the hobbyist must contact the airport manager at airfields within 5 miles, which in this example includes up to 4 private airstrips, 1 small airport (no tower), the regional airport, plus two heliports (not shown on the map), plus the regional airport control tower. That is 9 phone calls prior to flying a personal model aircraft in your backyard – which is a significant burden. What do you do if the phone number for a private airfield is not answered and there is no answering machine or voice mail?
Alternatively, a hobbyist may obtain a Part 107 FAA UAS drone license and then need only contact the regional airport and tower in advance of each flight when operated below 400 feet within most of the restricted area on the map. Which is considerably more practical than making 9 phone calls 24 hours before hobby flying. Part 107 pilots can also use an app to file their flight online and receive approval in minutes.
70% of the U.S. population lives within 5 miles of an airport – and is required to contact the airport facility manager and the tower, if one exists, prior to flight. Best guess is most model aircraft flyers are unaware of how controlled the airspace has become – literally 3 out of 4 flyers need to restrict their flights to previously approved model airfields or they need to contact all local airport operators.
Second guess is that close to zero are making those phone calls.
My third guess is that ultimately the regulatory structure will de facto eliminate most hobby flights of model aircraft except at established model aircraft airfields. The FAA will not specifically prohibit flights elsewhere but its byzantine regulatory structure de facto makes it so hard to comply that legal flights may be relegated to licensed and commercial operations.
The effect is that unlicensed model aircraft flying will be de facto restricted to existing model airfields (or very rural areas). You will need a Federal license to fly a 1 pound toy aircraft most anywhere else that is within easy distance of your home.
There is precedent for this to occur. We used to see a lot of Part 103 ultralight aircraft, but FAA rules now limit unlicensed ultralight pilot training to certified 2-seat trainers only (prior rules allowed 2-seat ultralights for training only without being certified) by certified Flight Instructors (also pricey). The costs of certifying a training aircraft and the small size of the market mean there are, I am told, only 3 aircraft makes (including powered parachutes) certified for training. The effect is it is nearly impossible to get flight training for an ultralight aircraft now.
Without training, ultralight aviation has been de facto shut down. (Flight training is not required for flying an ultralight but learning, and making mistakes on your own, can be, ahem, expensive.)
Unless you live in a rural area, legal drone flying is going the same way. Many will continue to fly without going through the permission process but such operations will be used by bureaucrats as an excuse for stronger regulation with high penalties for not complying.
To continue legal flying where many wish to fly will require most of us to have a Part 107 UAS license.
I plan to get the Part 107 license. I used to fly light aircraft and have an FAA private pilot’s license, but I am no longer current so need to take the Part 107 exam ($150). Because of issues related to health insurance coverage while flying an aircraft (side effect of ObamaCare fiasco), the additional costs of medical insurance while flying raises the cost of piloting an aircraft to about $250 per hour (rental plus more expensive health insurance) – which is wholly impractical.