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Should Radio Control Aircraft be Regulated?

May 05, 2015

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Airfield Models ( Radio Controlled Flight be Regulated?

Dave Brown who is currently the president of the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), has several times addressed how to avoid having outside regulation inflicted on our hobby in his "President's Perspective" column in Model Aviation magazine.

Addressing how to keep outside regulators at bay, unfortunately, does not address the current lack of regulation that plagues the hobby of radio controlled flight.  If you don't think there's a problem then you won't agree with much that I have to say here.

I have never been to a club (AMA sanctioned or otherwise) where members didn't do pretty much whatever they wanted to do regardless of club rules or AMA regulations and guidelines.  Everyone thinks they are above the law.

The AMA simply isn't getting the job done.  I am not an AMA basher and feel that they do much more good for us than not.  However they have no legitimate legal jurisdiction that I know of.  All the AMA can do is front for us and sanction clubs so that our insurance will pay in case of disaster.  The AMA does a lot more than that, but you can read about their agenda on their website.

Bureaucratic administration is not my strong point, so my solutions may or may not be feasible.  My lack of answers has never inhibited my ability to complain and does not alter the fact that there are several problems within our hobby that are not being addressed effectively or at all.

The ultimate problem is safety which is the only issue I will address here.

There are too many unsafe pilots and too many unsafe aircraft that are not only allowed to take to the skies, but that are obviously unsafe and nobody seems to care.  I wonder why that is.

In addition there are too many pilots who may be competent and may fly safe aircraft, but fly their airplanes a manner that others find frighteningly unsafe.  I can only imagine what the general public must think when they see these guys banking and yanking their planes around at full throttle close to the ground and too close to people.  It certainly isn't helping us except, arguably, to lose flying fields.

Not long ago there was a guy flying a plane powered by a piped .40.  He was flying horizontal figure 8's about 15 feet off the ground with the throttle wide open.  The plane was pointed directly at the pits (always at full throttle) and nowhere near far enough away at least twice during each of these maneuvers.  This went on for several minutes.

Those of us who weren't flying moved to safety behind large wooden tables because we knew that at most it would take a second for the plane to reach us if anything went wrong such as the wing parting company with fuselage or who knows what.  The plane didn't look particularly unsafe, but it didn't look well built or maintained either.  The behavior of the pilot was enough to question his overall judgment.

There is another guy who I've seen at the field three times.  Each day he was flying an ARF aerobat and each day he crashed the plane he brought (three different planes).  I've talked to him on several occasions, but no matter what I say to him, his answer is "I know."  Apparently he doesn't know as much as he thinks he does because he's losing one plane per outing at the rate he's going.

A person who I'll call Bob has gone through about a half dozen trainers and has never learned to fly.  The reason being that he has no interest in learning why an airplane flies.  He has no understanding of basic aerodynamics or what keeps an airplane in the air.  He actually believes that the elevator is what holds the airplane "up".  Trying to explain anything to him is fruitless.

Another pilot actually said, "Nobody has tried to help Bob."  The fact is that every instructor in the club has given up on Bob.  I've personally tried to help him every way imaginable.  He asks for advice and then shoots it down or does just the opposite.  Actually we have two guys with that trait.

An incident that seriously aggravated me occurred one day and still irks me when I think about it.

One day I was prepping my plane for flight at one of the pilot’s stations.  Another pilot came along a time later and set up his gas engined giant right next to me.  The stations are less than 10 feet apart.

The other pilot set up the plane so it was pointed straight at me about 6 feet away.  He then started the engine and revved it to full throttle.

When I said something to him he told me to move.  Apparently I was at fault for being there already.

A quick fix for him, a big mess for us

There are a lot of people who jump from one entertainment fix to the next.  They "buy" their hobby all in one shot putting no work or effort into it.  Of course they realize no satisfaction and quickly move on to their next fix.  Personally, I'm glad to be rid of them, but I'm an elitist and don't want anyone in the hobby who doesn't truly love it.  I understand that's unrealistic and can deal with what the actual situation is to a certain extent.

The unfortunate part is that many of these guys stick around long enough to give us a bad name before the general public in their short time in the hobby.  That leaves those of us who are dedicated to try to clean up the damage they cause to our image.

Is there a Flight Surgeon in the House?

It is up to the individual to decide if he is physically able to fly a radio control aircraft.  I belong to a club that is mostly retired gentlemen.  Most of the members recognize their limitations and are flying slower aircraft such as Telemasters.  Some guys continue to build but don't fly at all.  They bring their planes to the field and enjoy watching others fly them.  They stay involved but recognize their limitations.

Regrettably, a few members are still flying hot aircraft even though they don't have the reflexes or eyesight to keep up with them.  They often need another pilot to take over and get them out of trouble.  When they do land the plane themselves, it would be more accurate to call it a controlled crash than a landing.

I hope that when I reach that point I have enough self-awareness to choose the right aircraft to fly, but the ego is a powerful thing and I can't honestly say I'll do the right thing unless I'm forced to.

What's the answer?

The R/C community has proven that it doesn't have the ability or desire to regulate itself.  More often than not when a pilot is flying in an unsafe manner but hasn't broken any concrete rules, such as flying over the pits, no one addresses the behavior and, predictably, it continues.

Additionally, inexpensive ARF's and radios have removed the time and money investment that used to be a given part of the hobby.  If a guy crashes a plane that represents a total investment of $400.00 and 20 hours of time, it's no great loss.

I'm not in favor of raising prices because the hobby is plenty expensive for those of us who are dedicated and build our own planes.  My personal time investment in any given model is enough to keep me from risking the plane's demise by flying it recklessly (Gonzo is tragically excepted).

We can't force people to build their own planes and we can't put a minimum price tag on what goes in the air.  What we can do is ensure every pilot receives proper training and is held accountable for his behavior and actions to the point where they can be indefinitely grounded - legally.

As things stand, a lot of guys who can fly also think they can perform flight instruction.  I've seen a lot of guys "solo" when they weren't anywhere ready for it.  Some clubs, including mine, require that a new pilot be soloed by a designated flight instructor.  After the new pilot solos, he can fly anything he wants whether or not he's ready for it.

I've stated that I believe flight training is a three airplane process and as such I believe a flight instructor should sign off on each of the three planes before the student is allowed to progress to the next more advanced aircraft.  The reason being is that most new guys are in a big hurry to progress beyond their trainers and often they are not prepared for a more advanced aircraft and are not capable of flying it safely.

Fortunately, most guys are anxious enough about the transition that they enlist a more experienced pilot to help them through it.  That still doesn't make them qualified to fly the plane on their own even though that's usually the next step.

At the very least I believe that every R/C pilot should be required to attend some type of flight school that certifies them as being proficient after having a minimum number of flight hours.  It would be modeled after full scale flight schools and would cover safety, aerodynamic theory, emergency recovery and other ground school topics (not the least of which is courtesy and etiquette) and then progress to flight training.

The minimum number of hours should be just that.  Those who need more training will not be licensed until they can demonstrate that they are proficient pilots through rigorous testing.  Marginally keeping an aircraft in the air and stalling it in for a landing doesn't qualify as a pass.

Anyone who flies Radio Control aircraft should have to obtain a real, federally issued license to fly.  I don't want to be regulated any more than anyone else.  But I also don't want to have a plane flown through my chest by someone who can barely keep his plane in the air, or can't see or hear his plane.

Unfortunately, even a license won't stop a guy from deliberately flying his model in an obnoxiously unsafe manner.  However, I would say the vast majority of the guys who aren't safe simply don't know any better.  They did not take it upon themselves to learn about aerodynamics and their instructor either wasn't qualified or gave the student a pass before he was ready.  Qualified training would eliminate most of this part of the problem.

Some people want to minimize the situation saying that it's just a hobby and they are just toy airplanes.  Any point of view can be rationalized but nothing can be said that changes the fact that a powered model aircraft is very dangerous.  It can kill and maim people which has happened too many times.

There are simply too many guys who fly these toys in a manner that gives other pilots and spectators good reason to cower behind barriers.  It is no one's fault but our own.


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Copyright © 2004 Paul K. Johnson