Just Drop Off the Key, Lee

It seems that Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca thinks he’s above the law.  Normally he’d be right.

But Baca’s department demonstrated a custom designed unmanned surveillance drone to the media last week.  The problem?  They ignored written counsel from the Federal Aviation Administration, which had told the Sheriff’s Department that flying the drone would require certification from the Feds before flight would be allowed.

They flew the drone anyway.

“I wouldn’t want to term us as peeved, but we were definitely surprised,” FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said. Sheriff’s officials were told “that we were more than willing to sit down and talk about a certificate — but that was before their first flight.”

The FAA is now investigating Friday’s demonstration to determine whether the Sheriff’s Department should face disciplinary action.

Until the investigation is over, Brown said, the agency will not authorize the county’s use of the drones.


The way I see it, pilots and aircraft operators of all sizes all have to go through certification.  We pay the price in time, money, and effort in order to use the national airspace system.  Now Lee Baca thinks he can just purchase a couple dozen drones and fly them around the Los Angeles area with impunity?

I don’t think so.

If the LAPD wants regulatory relief from the FAA, they can get in line with the rest of us.

Sheriff’s officials dismissed the conflict as a misunderstanding that would soon be cleared up. But they were incredulous about what they consider red tape getting in the way of their law enforcement tool.

There’s no misunderstanding.  The FAA considers the drone to be an aircraft requiring certification.  The Sheriff’s Department took a different view and decided that they were not only the boss of the streets, but the final authority in the air as well.  Don’t need to be coy, Roy.

“A private citizen can go to the store and buy one of those model airplanes and fly them around. But because we’re doing it as a public service, we have to deal with the FAA?” said Sheriff’s Cmdr. Sid Heal. Once they “take a deep breath and realize there was no malice intended, it will get back on track.”

No, you don’t have to deal with the FAA “because you’re doing it as a public service”.  You have to deal with the FAA because you’re operating something the Feds have determined requires certification.  Obviously they don’t consider it a model airplane.  You disagree with the FAA?  Join the club.  But they are the ones who administer law in the air, and if I have to follow their mandates, so do you.  Hop on the bus, Gus.

And if malicious intent was a benchmark for FAA enforcement, the world would be a much different place my friend.

Baca said Wednesday that he was unaware of the FAA investigation but downplayed the dispute.

“There’s no reason for the FAA to be concerned,” he said, calling the drones “non-invasive and nearly silent.”

Since when is Lee Baca an expert on the National Airspace System?  Is he aware that there are well over 100 instrument approach procedures in use in the Los Angeles basin?  Does he know where Class E surface areas are located and what might be in them during marginal conditions?

Without the proper training, one of these drones could easily collide with an airplane coming out of the clouds.  Pilots know this and are trained to maintain appropriate distance from clouds when flying under visual flight rules so there will be enough time for evasive action.

What will his response be when an airplane, helicopter, blimp, or other craft has a midair or near-midair with one of these harmless objects?  Is he aware of the location and dimensions of protected airspace around runways?  Does he know that helicopters fly as low as 50′ off the deck at times?  Of course not.  But he’s the Sheriff, and nobody’d better mess with him on his turf.

My advice?  Make a new plan, Stan.

  3 comments for “Just Drop Off the Key, Lee

  1. June 24, 2006 at 7:37 pm

    There is actually a clause in the FAR’s exempting public service (gov’t) aircraft from many of the regulations. For example, the LA sheriff’s office is not required to maintain their helicopters in accordance with FAR 43; they also operate several military surplus choppers that are uncertified and unregistered. For many years, their pilots flew without helicopter ratings – they had their own inhouse training and “certification” system. Of course, there are limits – they can’t fly right through LAX’s Class B without talking to anyone, for example. But I can see how someone from within that culture could consider thumbing their nose at the FAA to be no big deal.

  2. CedarFever
    June 26, 2006 at 7:36 am

    Just thought I’d throw this in:


    “A private citizen can go to the store and buy one of those model airplanes and fly them around. But because we’re doing it as a public service, we have to deal with the FAA?” said Sheriff’s Cmdr. Sid Heal. Once they “take a deep breath and realize there was no malice intended, it will get back on track.”

    From the 2006 AMA Safety code:


    1. A model aircraft shall be defined as a non-human carrying device capable of sustained flight in the atmosphere. It shall not exceed the limitations established in this code and is intended to be used exclusively for recreational or competetion activity.

    2. The maximum takeoff weight of a model aircraft, including fuel, is 55 pounds, except for those flown under the AMA Experimental Aircraft Rules.

    5. I will not fly my model aircraft higher than aproximately 400 feet above ground level, when within three (3) miles of an airport, without notifying the airport operator. I will yield the right-of-way and avoid flying in the proximity of full-scale aircraft, utilizing a spotter when appropriate.

    The AMA safety code has been developed in cooperation with the FAA, so an operator of a radio controlled model following these rules should be OK as long as these rules (and whatever local ordinances) are followed. However, though this vehicle seems to meet the criteria as a model, it violates rule 1 (it’s not for recreational activity). So, no, a private citizen could not put up an similar craft for use as a surveillance platform. Hobbyists going for altitude records must coordinate with the FAA and I’m fairly certain that operators of commercial drones for use in surveying and aerial photography must be certified accordingly.

    Everytime I look at a Los Angeles sectional I get the shivers, so I can certainly understand the concern. Was it the Sheriff Department’s intention to fly this anywhere, anytime?

  3. Ron
    June 26, 2006 at 8:38 am


    Thanks for the AMA safety code info! Very interesting stuff. I think I’m going to include this information in my flight lessons. We have a practice area over the old El Toro MCAS, and recreational RC pilots are often flying their birds over the base at the same time. I’ve seen models flying well over 500′. I do warn my students that we have an altimeter, but the guys on the ground may not.

    The article didn’t say when and where the Sheriff Department intended on flying the UAV, but based on the intended use (surveillance, law enforcement, pursuit) I would assume that they would fly these things on an as-needed basis. That’s one of the problems — they don’t seem to have any appreciation or concern about what’s going on around them aviation-wise.

    The AMA safety code prohibits operating within three miles of an airport without notifying the airport operator. If the Sheriff’s Department were willing to coordinate with the operators of LAX, SMO, Whiteman, El Monte, Pomona, Cable, Compton, Long Beach, Torrance, Hawthorne, and other airports (remember, this includes private airports, helipads, and other places where full size aircraft land and depart) every time they wanted to operate within that radius, then it might be a different story.

    But as you noted, the safety code limits are for recreational and competitive use only. The Sheriff’s Deparment UAVs are for law enforcement, so ostensibly the operator’s attention would be elsewhere since they were chasing bad guys instead of flying for fun.

    Bottom line, you get the shivers when you look at an LA Sectional. The Sheriff’s Department doesn’t. And that is what gives *me* the shivers.

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