National Transportation Safety Board

In its report of September 27, 2019 the National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”), although acknowledging the need for Boeing to “fine tune” its technology to prevent the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (“MCAS”) from automatically repeating and sending a plane into uncontrolled dives, NTSB focused more on pilots “confusion” in responding to multiple alarms caused by the malfunction in the MCAS system control sensors. NTSB then followed up by issuing seven recommendations calling on the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) to update how it assumes pilots will react in emergencies and make aircraft more “intuitive” when things go wrong, in an effort to ensure that “average pilots” can respond to complex emergencies.

The Joint Authorities Technical Review Panel, made up of experts from the FAA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (“NASA”) and nine other regulatory agencies from around the world, in its report of October 12, 2019 (“Joint Authorities Report”), reached a dramatically different conclusion. It instead took FAA to task for failing to follow its own rules, using out of date procedures, and lacking the expertise to fully explore the design changes for the aircraft implicated in the two crashes.


Continue Reading The National Transportation Safety Board Report Mutes Criticism of the 737 Max Aircraft Design

In a strange twist on the normal relationship between federal regulatory agencies, the National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”) has found the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) a primary culprit in the October 31, 2014 disastrous test flight of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, in which one of the two pilots was killed, and debris was spread over a 33 mile area in San Bernardino County, northeast of Los Angeles.  

 
The issue appears to be the grant of a waiver by FAA from the existing rules governing safety of interplanetary vehicles, despite FAA’s own safety consultant’s warning that Virgin Galactic was violating those rules.  The claim is that, while Congress did not delegate to FAA the authority to implement regulations as stringent as those applicable to commercial aircraft, FAA managers specifically ignored the repeated advice of safety engineers that Virgin Galactic had not fully complied with the regulations that do exist.  Specifically, FAA safety personnel claim that FAA managers based their decision to grant the waiver on the remoteness of the Town of Mojave where the aircraft’s launch company, Scaled, is based, and on the surrounding area where the company planned its test flights.  
 
In the end, the NTSB found that, although the co-pilot had erred by prematurely unlocking the rocketship’s movable tail, the FAA and the launch company bear a disproportionate share of the responsibility.  On the one hand, the launch company had failed to ascertain that a single error by an operator could lead to the ship’s destruction.  On the other hand, the FAA, acceding to pressure to approve the permit quickly, had failed to ensure that the company took this lack of redundancy into account.  Exacerbating the issue is the fact that SpaceShipTwo is one of three commercial rockets to crash in the span of eight months.  
 


Continue Reading NTSB Faults FAA in Private Spacecraft Investigation

The Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) reports that close calls between conventional aircraft and unmanned aircraft systems (“UAS” or “drones”) have increased during 2014 to more than 40 per month over earlier reports of 10 such incidents in the months of March and April.  Some of these incidents have occurred in the busy airspace surrounding Los Angeles, California, Washington, D.C., and John F. Kennedy Airport in New York.  Some of these conflicts have arisen because untrained operators of recreational drones are unaware of FAA’s guidelines governing such use.  Those guidelines ask, among other things, that “hobby” drones stay away from civil aviation, below 400 feet AGL, and at least 5 miles from airports.  However, as FAA prepares to release its highly anticipated Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for small unmanned aircraft systems, the focus is not on hobbyists, but on commercial operators.


Continue Reading FAA Reports Increasing Conflict Between Drones and Civil Aviation

Earlier today, in a landmark decision for the unmanned aircraft systems industry, the National Transportation Safety Board reversed the Administrative Law Judge Patrick Geraghty’s order in the Pirker case and held that unmanned aircraft systems fall squarely within the definition of “aircraft” under the Federal Aviation Regulations.  This is the most significant legal opinion issued to date on the issue of drones in the United States. 

In a twelve page opinion reversing the ALJ’s March 7, 2014 decisional order, the NTSB stated:
“This case calls upon us to ascertain a clear, reasonable definition of ‘aircraft’ for purposes of the prohibition on careless and reckless operation in 14 C.F.R. § 91.13(a). We must look no further than the clear, unambiguous plain language of 49 U.S.C. § 40102(a)(6) and 14 C.F.R. § 1.1: an ‘aircraft’ is any ‘device’ ‘used for flight in the air.’ This definition includes any aircraft, manned or unmanned, large or small. The prohibition on careless and reckless operation in § 91.13(a) applies with respect to the operation of any ‘aircraft’ other than those subject to parts 101 and 103. We therefore remand to the law judge for a full factual hearing to determine whether respondent operated the aircraft ‘in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another,’ contrary to § 91.13(a).”
The Federal Aviation Administration’s success on appeal comes as no surprise to most members of the UAS industry, many of whom have already tacitly recognized the FAA’s jurisdiction over unmanned aircraft by specifically requesting regulatory exemptions to conduct commercial UAS operations under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.
 


Continue Reading Pirker Reversed: NTSB Confirms FAA Has Jurisdiction Over Drones

While many members of the growing community of developers, manufacturers and operators of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (“UAS”) have expressed enthusiasm at the National Transportation Safety Board Administrative Decision in the Pirker case, Administrator v. Pirker, NTSB Docket CP-217, July 18, 2013, their reaction should be tempered by the law of unintended consequences.  The outcome of the administrative action, which the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) has since appealed, acknowledges not only the FAA regulation that is certain to arise as a result of the Congressional mandate contained in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Pub. L. 112-95, § 334 (“FMRA”), but also opens the door to unrestricted local regulation. 

Specifically, Pirker’s argument is based on the assumption that the UAS at issue is a “five-pound radio-controlled model airplane constructed of styrofoam [sic],” Motion to Dismiss, p. 1.  He does not cite, or even refer to, any operant statutory or regulatory definition of “model aircraft.”  On that basis, Pirker alleges that his operation of the “model airplane” cannot be regulated because FAA has “fallen far behind its own schedule, as well the scheduled mandated by Congress,” Motion to Dismiss, p. 1, for enacting regulations.  Pirker again fails to refer the Court to the full extent of the Congressional mandate in FMRA which effectively disposes of his fundamental argument. 
 


Continue Reading Decision in Pirker Case Invokes Specter of Local Regulation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems

The Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) has appealed a recent National Transportation Safety Board administrative decision, Administrator v. Pirker, NTSB Docket CP-217, July 18, 2013, in which Administrative Law Judge Patrick Geraghty ruled that FAA had no regulatory authority when it fined the operator of an Unmanned Aircraft System (“UAS”) (otherwise known as “drone”) used for commercial photography, for operating a UAS at an altitude below that approved for commercial manned aircraft.  It would do well for developers, manufacturers and operators of UAS to listen carefully to FAA’s views because the decision, while preliminary, and subject to appeal through many levels of the Federal Court system, has opened the proverbial Pandora’s Box in the relationship of manned and unmanned aircraft and their joint, or separate regulatory frameworks. 

First, it is important for the UAS community to recognize that, while Administrative Law Judge Geraghty found an absence of regulatory authority in the FAA, the Opinion did not acknowledge the seminal issue of “the federal government’s pervasive regulation of aircraft, airspace and aviation safety,” see, Montalvo v. Spirit Airlines, 508 F.3d 464, 472-74 (9th Cir. 2007).  That pervasive control arises under the Federal Aviation Act, 49 U.S.C. § 40101 in which Congress expressly granted to the Secretary of Transportation, through his/her designee, the FAA, the tasks of, among other things, “controlling the use of the navigable airspace and regulating civil and military operations in that airspace in the interest of the safety and efficiency of both . . .,” 49 U.S.C. § 40101(d)(4), as well as “encouraging and developing civil aeronautics, including new aviation technology.”  49 U.S.C. § 40101(d)(3).  That express assignment of responsibility alone gives FAA “skin in the game.” 

FAA’s response more specifically addresses what it believes to be misapprehensions about the extent of its power and authority. 
 


Continue Reading FAA Pushes Back Against Advocates of Unregulated Drone Operations