Unmanned aircraft: A hobby that could result in certificate action

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).

Jared Allen
Mr. Allen is AOPA’s Legal Services Plan (LSP) senior staff attorney and is an instrument-rated private pilot. He provides initial consultations to pilots through the LSP when the FAA has contacted them about potential FAR violations. Jared has helped numerous pilots successfully navigate through compliance actions.
Topics: Pilot Protection Services, AOPA Products and Services, Airspace

Related Articles