The Federal Aviation Administration has shut down at least 36 model aircraft clubs in the Washington, DC area, citing a new, extended no-fly zone for drones around the nation's capital.
The FAA has been worried about the proliferation of drones for several years now, and in September extended a 15-mile no fly zone surrounding Washington, DC's National Airport to 30 miles. The FAA has cited national security issues and airspace safety as the main reasons for its DC no-fly zone, called a "Special Flight Rules Area," but many of the sites shut down have existed for years with no safety concerns. It's unclear if or when the sites will be allowed to reopen.
Many of the clubs exist in huge fields many miles outside the Washington, DC border in suburban Maryland and Virginia. Fourteen of the 36 sites are accredited by the Academy of Model Aircraft, meaning they generally comply with baseline safety guidelines and are not located near airports.
The DC area has one of the country's largest drone hobby organizations, called the DC Drone User Group, the existence of which is threatened by this new action. It regularly has fly-ins and meetups in large open fields to introduce people to the hobby. Christopher Vo, the president of the organization, said that the FAA enforcement action is a "show-stopper."
"In 2016 we're going to try to do more indoor flying events to get around DC area restrictions because the demand is so high to find a place to fly," Vo told me. "Many of these fields could be down and out for many more months to come."
Last week, FAA sent an email to the AMA demanding that it shut these sites down because they are within a 30-mile radius of Washington National Airport. A new guideline issued in September made flying drones or model aircraft anywhere within this radius illegal, according to the FAA.
"We are hearing reports that some individuals may be flying inside the SFRA even though they know it is in violation of the current airspace restrictions," Brian Throop, manager of the FAA's special operations security group, wrote in an email to the AMA and several flying sites in the area. "We are asking for your help in spreading the word to the National Capital Region model aircraft community that such activity is subject to enforcement action."
"UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE THE FAA HAS REQUESTED THAT ALL FLYING OPERATIONS BE DISCONTINUED. THIS IS A NO FLY ZONE."
The AMA then passed this message along to its 14 independently-owned and operated clubs in the area, asking them to shut down and imploring them, "Do not contact the FAA on your own."
"We have every reason to believe that this is a temporary situation," the AMA wrote in an email to its members. "Persons operating aircraft within the SFRA are subject to civil penalties and or criminal charges."
Several clubs in the area posted notices on their websites and Facebook groups telling their members that operations are suspended indefinitely. In a separate email, the AMA told clubs in the area that it expected the FAA to reopen the clubs sometime in mid-January, though the agency has rarely made exceptions to its no-fly zone in and around DC.
"You will not need to close the field, only cease operations temporarily, no flying of anything, until mid-January when we expect to get permission to continue operations for all fields … the FAA did indicate they were going to use law enforcement to enforce this," an email sent by the AMA's Ray Stinchcomb said. The AMA added that it is working with the FAA to get special permission for its flying clubs to continue operations.
"Effective as soon as you can please post this suggested sign at your flying site:
THIS IS A NO FLY ZONE
UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE THE FAA HAS REQUESTED THAT ALL FLYING OPERATIONS BE DISCONTINUED.
THIS IS A NO FLY ZONE"
It's worth noting that a 30-mile radius around Washington National Airport encompasses not only the most heavily populated areas of the DC metro area, but extends well into rural areas in southern Maryland; rich, spacious suburbs in Northern Virginia and Maryland; into parts of the Chesapeake Bay; and nearly all the way up to Baltimore. As a native of the area, some of the areas encompassed by the no-fly zone are hardly what anyone would consider the "metro area."
"AMA seems to think that this whole situation will be resolved by mid-January, but we all know how slow things roll at the feds," Vo said.