Regulatory Update: Recreational sUAS in Controlled Airspace

Recreational drone with pilot.

By Brandon Guillot, RPC, MAS

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a new directive on May 16, 2019 that directly affects all recreational  sUAS nationwide. Under this new directive, all recreational sUAS must receive authorization from the FAA prior to flying in any controlled airspace. The FAA divides the National Airspace System (NAS) into different Classes (or types) of airspace in order to prevent a “loss of separation” (or collision) between two aircraft at any given time. Under this new directive, specific authorization from the FAA must be given for Class B, C, D, and E surface areas near busy airports.

The reason for ensuring this separation between aircraft is particularly sobering when one considers the collision of PSA Flight 182 with a Cessna 172 over San Diego, California, on September 25, 1978 resulting in 144 casualties. The PSA flight was a Boeing 727 with 135 souls on board, and it was cleared to descend into San Diego International Airport after departing from Sacramento, CA.

Unknown to the crew, there was a small, single engine Cessna 172 in the same area practicing instrument landing procedures. There was a fatal loss of separation between the two aircraft, with the Cessna striking the right wing of the PSA 727. The collision severed hydraulic and control lines for the airliner which rolled over and crashed into a neighborhood.

The crash resulted in 144 fatalities, including all persons on the 727, the Cessna, and 7 more people on the ground. Following the accident, a substantial review of airspace near busy airports was conducted with the intent that every aircraft flying in that area be under “positive control” of the Air Traffic Control Tower in order to prevent future collisions. For the most part, that system has been very successful.

However, the introduction of technologically advanced sUAS at relatively low cost to the consumer has posed a new challenge to maintaining the safety of the NAS in the immediate vicinity of busy airports. Prior to the early 2010s, model aircraft were flown for hobby reasons for some 70-80 years with relatively few incidents involving manned aircraft. People (including myself) flew sport planes and models within visual line of sight from the remote pilot, which limited both altitude and slant distance and reduced the ability of the aircraft to interfere with manned flights.

With the arrival of GPS-guided aircraft and First-Person Video (FPV) systems, the dynamic changed. Now people with little to no aeronautical knowledge could purchase a device capable of flying several thousand feet in the air, at long distance from the launch point, and maintain control while not being conscious of the hazards associated with that flight.

Until October of 2018, recreational sUAS fell under the Special Rule for Model Aircraft (SRMA), which exempted the (FAA) from having any control over sUAS. The rule was designed for Model Aircraft flown for recreation, such as the foam Spitfires and Messerschmitt’s people may see flying around the local soccer field. Unfortunately, irresponsible multirotor and FPV flights were also occurring near manned aircraft and major airports with reckless pilots trying to hide behind the Special Rule for Model Aircraft to prevent the FAA from taking punitive action. Therefore, the SRMA was repealed in October 2018 and placed recreational sUAS, including models, under the purview of the FAA .

Recent events have brought even more scrutiny on recreational sUAS. Between November 2018 and March 2019, there were several high-profile incidents where sUAS either delayed or shut down traffic at several major airports. One incident at Gatwick International Airport in London affected the airport for three days, causing 140,000 passengers to be displaced during the Christmas holiday season and costing the airlines some $64.5 million in lost revenue. Further incidents occurred at Newark and Dallas Fort-Worth airports, causing aircraft to be rerouted to avoid a potential impact.

The difficult part about the new ruling on recreational sUAS in controlled airspace is that the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC), which is used by Part 107 commercial pilots to receive airspace approvals within minutes, is currently not open for recreational pilots to use for flight authorizations. Instead, any recreational flights in controlled airspace must be submitted 90 days prior to the flight on the FAA Drone Zone web portal. The only exception is for flights at locations designated by the Academy of Model Aeronautics as flying fields. In addition, the FAA will be adding a basic knowledge test that must be completed online prior to recreational flying in the NAS, but that test has not been fully created at the time of this article.

At the current time, it is unknown when the FAA infrastructure will allow for recreational users to access the LAANC in order to expedite the previously mentioned airspace authorizations. Meanwhile it is necessary for ALL sUAS pilots to make safe decisions in order to ensure that there are no further losses of separation between manned and unmanned aircraft. In addition, sUAS pilots are responsible for following the regulations to promote safe and enjoyable flights for both recreational and commercial purposes.

Drone Pilot Training Center is dedicated to providing the information that you need to become a successful commercial drone pilot. Check back for updates at

Brandon Guillot, RPC, MAS
Latest posts by Brandon Guillot, RPC, MAS (see all)
Thanks for Sharing!