Glider Pilot Surprised by Unmanned Vehicle in Thermal

One of the pilots in our local soaring club was surprised to discover that he was sharing a thermal with a model aircraft [commonly referred to nowadays as 'Unmanned Aerial Vehicles' (UAVs)] at ~2,500' MSL (~1,800' AGL). With the proliferation of such aircraft, glider pilots may need to be especially vigilant for unmanned aircraft. As one of our club instructors informed us, in the United States, UAVs are required by the FAA to remain below 400' AGL or have a Certificate of Authorization (CoA) to operate at higher altitudes (but see the link in the quote below for clarification on the FAA's stance regarding UAV operating altitudes). CoAs are currently only issued for restricted areas in the Continental U.S.mIn any case, we need to be on the lookout for unmanned aerial companions while soaring.

Here's the pilot report:

Today I had what looked like a fast quadcopter join me in a thermal above Cecil Ashburn Drive.

I think I was at about 3,100 feet MSL. The copter was about 500 feet below and gaining.
At first I though it was a bird, then a mylar balloon, then a manuevering craft with a red blinking light.
He was turning the same direction I was, but turning at a different rate so I couldn't continuously see him.
I bugged out.

The thing that bugs me is that if there was a midair, he'd be out a copter, I'd just be out.

Anybody know what the rules are in this situation?
Prior arrangement for formation flying.
Glider versus powered right of way.
Anything goes if you can get away with it.

Here's a link to the quadcopter community's thoughts on the rules.

The quadcopter folks agree that AC-9157 does specify a limit of 400 feet and line of sight, But they say that the process that makes an AC is not a rule- making process with a public comment period and so is not binding on the general public. They claim that the FAA has admitted that this is correct in court. They say this leaves 14 CFR part 91. Does a particular section come to mind in there that might apply?

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  4 comments for “Glider Pilot Surprised by Unmanned Vehicle in Thermal

  1. William Motley
    February 25, 2014 at 7:24 pm

    As a former single-engine pilot, student glider pilot, and remote control modeller, I am also concerned about the misuse of personal drones aka UAVs aka UASs. There has been a tremendous upsurge in the use of RC model quad-copters and other multi-rotor aircraft of this type. This is due to the development and declining costs of GPS and 3D stability systems, which make these latest generation aircraft very easy to acquire off-the-shelf and fly. Many newcomers to RC flying have no connection to the “old school” of RC flying, which many times requires some investment in training hours and money, plus a moderate to in-depth knowledge of the technologies involved. To be fair, there are many, many multi-rotor fliers who are highly, technically sophisticated, who design and build their own aircraft, and make wise decisions. My comments are generally directed toward those who buy a quad-copter off-the-shelf and fly it, oblivious to any possible consequences.

    In my area of the US, there appears to me to be some (much?) dislike between the two groups. The newcomers see the old crowd as rule-bound and hostile to new technology. However, many traditional fliers fly airplanes, helicopters and multi-rotor aircraft. Regardless, many in the traditional group of airplane and helicopter RC pilots see the newcomers as a threat to our hobby by actions such as the one described by Mr. Baldwin.

    The Academy of Model Aeronautics is trying to encourage the new generation of RC fliers to join the AMA (, follow FAA and AMA rules, and acquire the liability insurance AMA provides. (General AMA rules are no flights higher than 400 feet, no flights closer than 3 miles to any airport, and line-of-sight piloting is required.) The AMA has been working closely with the US Federal Aviation Administration on these and other RC model issues.

    Quite a few RC modellers are very concerned a user of the new, easy to acquire and fly multi-rotor aircraft will make an unwise decision. Any major accident caused by a recreational modeller will create negative publicity for the entire RC hobby and result in more restrictions for a very educational, fun and rewarding hobby. Many power, glider pilots and astronauts began their careers in RC modelling. AMA members are trying to convince all RC fliers to know and follow common sense rules.

  2. Chris Woodward
    February 26, 2014 at 1:55 am

    I think Mr. Motley explains the situation very well. Many people are now flying outside of the traditional model fields and model organizations. This is currently being addressed by the FAA, AMA, Congress, and the many national UAS organizations. The current rule making process started over 4 years ago and has recently been delayed, again, until Nov 2014.
    Until the new FAA regulations are finalized, we will have to keep operating the same as we have been for over 75years, by safely sharing our nation’s airspace.

    All model and UAS aircraft are required to be controlled by “line of sight.” For small models this is about 300’AGL. However, larger model aircraft can occasionally fly near 4000’AGL. UAS aircraft are only required to be IFR above FL180.

    “AMA’s 75 years of experience tells us that Model Aircaft operations above 400’ pose little to no risk to the manned aircraft community. The only time this activity is of concern is when model aircraft are operated in close proximity to airports. As such, AMA stands by its 3mi/400’ safety criteria established in the AMA National Safety Code.”

    Model aircraft must also comply with FAA issued NOTAMs and TFRs. In some cases, TFRs are issued for model aircraft operations during large flying events.

    The most recent news regarding the new rules for UAS & Model Aircraft 1/2014:

    AMA National Safety Code:

    “…Model aircraft pilots will:
    (a) Yield the right of way to all human-carrying aircraft.
    (b) See and avoid all aircraft and a spotter must be used when appropriate. (AMA Document #540-D.)
    (c) Not fly higher than approximately 400 feet above ground level within three (3) miles of an airport without notifying the airport operator.
    (d) Not interfere with operations and traffic patterns at any airport, heliport or seaplane base except where there is a mixed use agreement…”

    AMA See and Avoid Guidance:

    FAA AC 91-57 Model Aircraft Operation Standards (Oct 1981, currently being rewritten, AMA waiver):

    Also, not regulated by the AMA, a middle school in Alabama recently launched a helium balloon with camera and GPS tracking to above 53,000’AGL. It is allowed by the FAA. Who knew?

  3. Herb Kilian
    February 26, 2014 at 2:16 pm

    Even a large RC Glider (15′ wingspan) will be very difficult to see and control from the ground at above 2,500′ or so. This quad-copter was most likely flown in FPV mode or First Person Viewer. That means there was a camera and video link to the pilot on the ground involved. Wearing special goggles with a display is most common, I believe. These cowboy-pilots can operate for over 30 min in flight and up to 10 mi away as long as they are line-of-sight with the model airplane. William correctly points out that the flying skills of the operator can be and often are very low. Stabilization systems including automatic homing functions (GPS driven) make these things childsplay to fly.
    I would bet the operator is gullible enough to have already posted the video the craft took on youtube.

  4. Herb Kilian
    February 26, 2014 at 2:23 pm

    Here you go, quad-copter encounter with a balloon but just what I was trying to point out:
    This is going on every day, AMA and FAI regulations be damned. There will be accidents.

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