Almost everyone likes model airplanes. Kids and adults have been building model flying machines for centuries. In fact, the Wright brothers experimented with model helicopters as well as fixed wing airplanes. I built my first model when I was nine years old. It was a Guillow’s kit of a Grumman TBF Avenger, the same plane flown by Lt. George H. W. Bush during WW-2. It is amazing to me the same kit is still in production, although a bit more pricey than when my dad bought mine.
When Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, they carved out an exemption for model airplanes and aeromodeling in general. As passed by Congress, §336 prohibits the FAA from promulgating any new rule or regulation regarding model aircraft, or an aircraft being developed as a model aircraft …” The law does specify that certain requirements must be met for an aircraft to qualify as a model airplane. However, that did not deter the FAA in its quest to amass more power over anything that can get off the ground higher than the Administrator can jump. After all, the space between the trees in your backyard, the local park, or your model flying club IS airspace, and they see their job as controlling airspace, dammit! All of it.
The organization which speaks for the majority of responsible model airplane enthusiasts is the Academy of Model Aeronautics. The AMA was founded in 1936 to promote the hobby of building and flying model airplanes. In those days, most models were made of balsa sticks and tissue paper, with small gasoline engines just becoming popular, replacing rubber band power. The first models were “free flight,” which is exactly what it sounds like. The model is powered for a few seconds by either a rubber or fuel motor to get aloft, then becomes a glider, getting lift from rising air, if the modeler is lucky. Or if unlucky may get too much lift and the model ends up miles away, or perhaps never seen again. A model builder named Jim Walker wanted to be able to control his models, just like the real thing. Walker invented what was called U-control, using long thin wires to control the elevator for up and down. Obviously, the model flew in a circle, but with the wires attached to a handle, incredible stunts could be done.
Some early modelers began using radio to control their model airplanes. The first radios were hand made, were heavy and not reliable. Transistors had been invented recently, and those replaced vacuum tubes. When Citizen’s Band channels opened up specific frequencies, a market opened up for more than CB radios on the highway. Specialized control boxes and receivers for model airplanes, cars and boats appeared. Radios became smaller, lighter and more reliable. Free flight and control line flying continued to have a major niche in model aviation, but radio control took center stage by the 1960s and 1970s.
Things appeared to be going along well for both model hobbyists and the FAA until a combination of 9-11 and new photographic technology appeared a few years ago. And the Internet. The FAA started eying model airplanes as another area of flight they could move in on and control. Horror of horrors, they discovered people with NO PILOTS LICENSES were making money from their aerial hobby. Contests have always had prizes, and a few sponsored fliers have likewise been around ever since Jim Walker patented his U-Reely device.
The AMA set up a special office for government relations, designed to coordinate and resolve issues associated with the possibility of airspace conflicts between models and the air traffic system. Most model airplane flying clubs are AMA chartered, meaning that each member has a million dollar insurance policy, but members also have to abide by the rules. For instance, the AMA rules say no flight over 400 feet.
Are there scofflaws? Of course. Just as there are people who speed, drive recklessly, text while driving and do truly dumb stuff in their cars. And boats. And airplanes. And motorcycles. The problem is that scofflaws create problems for everyone else who wants to do the right thing.
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com