A tip for airmen who may operate an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) for hobby or recreational use: if you face an FAA enforcement action arising from UAS operations, the FAA may consider your status as a certificate holder to warrant a harsher civil penalty, or even certificate action.
While the hobby or recreational use of a UAS does not currently require the operator to hold any FAA issued certificate or rating, the FAA may still pursue enforcement action against those operating a UAS who endanger the safety of the National Airspace System.
Regardless of whether a person subject to such an enforcement action is an airman, the FAA may impose a civil penalty as a sanction for an alleged violation of an operational FAR. For example, the FAA assessed an individual a civil penalty in the amount of $10,000 based upon the careless or reckless operation of an unmanned aircraft. See Administrator v. Pirker, NTSB Order No. EA-5730 (2014).
However, the FAA may seek an increased civil penalty against an airman because of his or her status as a certificate holder. According to the FAA Compliance and Enforcement Program (FAA Order 2150.3B), a “certificate holder should appreciate the potential for endangerment that operating a UAS contrary to the FAA’s safety regulations may cause.” Therefore, an airman’s “status as a certificate holder is an aggravating factor that may warrant a civil penalty above the moderate range for a single, first-time, inadvertent violation.”
If the FAA alleges “deliberate, egregious violation” of a FAR by the airman during UAS operations, then the airman may face certificate action in addition to a civil penalty. Significantly, the FAA may take such action “regardless of whether the certificate holder is exercising the privileges of the certificate in connection with the violations associated with a UAS operation.”
In light of this FAA enforcement guidance, any airman faced with a potential FAR violation arising from the operation of a UAS should consult with an experienced attorney as soon as possible, and consider whether it is appropriate to file a report with NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS).