How a Drone Pilot Should Contact Air Traffic Control

Note, this post is no longer relative given the new Part 107 regulations. If you’re a commercial sUAS pilot, you are not supposed to contact ATC directly and should be using the FAA’s online ATC notification portal if you plan to operate in controlled (non class G) airspace.

I’m a U.S. drone pilot who just got my 333 exemption. Am I allowed to fly within 5 miles of an airport? How should I get in touch with air traffic control?

no fly zone contact air traffic controlI get asked this question a lot, particularly from those who use apps like Hover and B4UFLY to figure out where their closest airport is. They open these apps, see a bunch of circles, and think to themselves, DANG. Can I really not fly in any of these circles?

Note: This is not legal advice. I’m not a lawyer and don’t claim to be a legal expert when it comes to this question (or any other content / training we offer in this community). If you’re looking for an sUAS lawyer, contact Enrico Schaefer over at http://DroneLaw.pro.

To explore this question, let’s pull up a few relevant sources of information:

First let’s look at the 333 exemption letter that the FAA has been sending out to those folks who have successfully navigated the 333 exemption process in order to operate commercially. Here’s how the letter starts:

This letter is to inform you that we have granted your request for exemption. It transmits our decision, explains its basis, and gives you the conditions and limitations of the exemption, including the date it ends.

Cool. Pretty straightforward.

Let’s scroll down a bit:

The UA may not operate within 5 nautical miles of an airport reference point (ARP) as denoted in the current FAA Airport/Facility Directory (AFD) or for airports not denoted with an ARP, the center of the airport symbol as denoted on the current FAA-published aeronautical chart, unless a letter of agreement with that airport’s management is obtained or otherwise permitted by a COA issued to the exemption holder. The letter of agreement with the airport management must be made available to the Administrator or any law enforcement official upon request.

Interesting.

Let’s also take a look at the Know Before You Fly campaign, put together in partnership between the FAA, the AMA, and AUVSI. Here’s what they have to say:

Contact the airport or control tower before flying within five miles of an airport.

Fly no closer than two nautical miles from a heliport with a published instrument flight procedure.

And let’s get a little geeky and open up the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Section 336 SPECIAL RULE FOR MODEL AIRCRAFT:

When flown within 5 miles of an airport, the operator of the aircraft provides the airport operator and the airport air traffic control tower (when an air traffic facility is located at the airport) with prior notice of the operation (model aircraft operators flying from a permanent location within 5 miles of an airport should establish a mutually-agreed upon operating procedure with the airport operator and the airport air traffic control tower (when an air traffic facility is located at the airport)).

And while there are other bodies of text I could dive deeper into, the message is pretty simple:

Yes, you can fly within 5 miles of an airport, but only if you contact air traffic control.

But what if your backyard happens to be within 5 miles of an airport, and you only plan to fly 50-60 feet over the grass in your backyard? Do you really need to bother air traffic control?

I’d encourage you to use your best judgement here. Again, this is not legal advice, so take it with a grain of salt. Personally I’d call, but I know many who don’t for an operation like this.

Basically, if there’s any doubt in your mind, even 0.1%, that your intended flight plans might disrupt what’s happening at a nearby airport, heliport, etc., then I’d do your due diligence and have a conversation with someone.

Great, so how do I actually do that?

It’s pretty easy, actually. Pick up the phone!

To get a control tower’s number, check out Airmap.io, the free Hover smartphone app, or try Googling it.

Be prepared to speak confidently about who you are and what your intended operations are (exact location, time, planned max altitude, etc.).

Remember, the regulations don’t say that you need to contact ATC each time you fly, just that you have an established procedure / letter of agreement with the airport.

Your conversation will likely go something like this:

CONTROL TOWER: Hi there, what can I do for you?

YOU: Hello, I just wanted to ask permission to see if I could fly my UAV about 3.5 miles from your airport JOHN C TUNE. I’d only be flying 150-200 ft. off the ground over McCabe Golf Course, and I already have permission from the golf course to fly over their course before it opens in the early morning.

CONTROL TOWER: Thanks so much for calling! I really appreciate you letting us know you’re flying in the area. I’d like to take a few notes in case someone calls this in while you’re flying…can you please tell me one more time 1) where you are flying, 2) what your max altitude will be, and 3) how long you’ll be flying?

ME: Yes, no problem. (Share those details).

CONTROL TOWER: Roger, roger. Thanks for letting us know.

ME: No, thank YOU.

Seriously though, most experiences with ATC are respectful and uneventful. At the end of the day, they’re happy each time a responsible UAV pilot calls in. It makes all of us in the sUAS industry look a lot better!

Hope this helps to clear up any confusion you may have had about this process.

When in doubt, pick up the phone 🙂

 

Alan Perlman

Founder at UAV Coach
Alan is an FAA-certified drone pilot and founded UAV Coach in 2014 to help connect drone enthusiasts, to provide world-class sUAS industry training courses, and to help push the drone community forward with a focus on safety and commercial opportunities.

  7 comments for “How a Drone Pilot Should Contact Air Traffic Control

  1. Chris
    February 10, 2016 at 9:52 pm

    You do need a COA and LOA to operate commercially under a 333, depending on the tower. They also have restrictions closer to the field to not interfere with manned aircraft.

  2. February 13, 2016 at 11:24 am

    UAV Coach. You appear to mixing current commercial UAS and recreational UAS rules here… As an FAA 333 holder you also are regulatedby the conditions and restrictions of of your Civil COA,
    blanket COA or Standard. The blanket COA is more restrictive than the 333.
    Better check you facts, unless the commercial operator has a Standard COA specific at allowing you to operate UAS commercially, no flying with the restricted distances (depends on levels of control tower) even if you contact the airport. Better check yourself Coach, your conclusion in the blog is not accurate.

    • February 13, 2016 at 12:49 pm

      Hi Jeff, thanks for taking the time to comment.

      Glad you brought up the blanket COA. For those unfamiliar with what Jeff is talking about, check out the bottom of page 5 here: http://uavus.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Section_333_Blanket_200_COA_Effective_7-1-2015.pdf

      I was always under the impression that even if you’re operating commercially under a blanket COA, you can still fly within the nautical mile distances. In the article above, I’m not only considering the 2012 Modernization and Reform Act (the only sUAS “law” on the books right now), but I’m also considering the exact language being shared in both the 333 exemption letter and the FAA’s “Know Before You Fly” campaign.

      Would love to have others chime in…

      I still stand by my conclusion that it’s best to over-communicate with your local FSDO office and ATC contacts when conducting flight operations. At the end of the day, if you don’t get their permission to conduct the kind of sUAS flight operation you have in mind, then that’s where I’d draw the line.

  3. Larry Barnard
    April 10, 2016 at 3:25 pm

    One other tiny point I’d like to share perspective on Alan. The concept of “requesting permission” vs. notifying agencies of “intent”. Big difference. Regardless, I’d think we should all have an attitude of cooperation and respect with anyone on the phone, but the formal, “legal” (?) requirement is to notify, not beg or request. Do I have that correct? (speaking as a hobbyist vs. 333 holder)

    • April 15, 2016 at 11:05 am

      Yes, that’s correct. The notifying agency does have the authority to explicitly decline your notification of intent…in which case you’d want to follow their guidelines.

  4. Judah cohen
    July 1, 2016 at 10:35 pm

    Hello alan in my area there are 3 privately owned heliports but I can’t seem to get in touch with them with this in mind I’ve been holding back flying my drone because I rather be safe than sorry maybe you can help of a good website that I can find a phone number and they don’t have a controll tower.

    • July 8, 2016 at 5:03 pm

      Hey Judah, have you tried the B4UFLY app?

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