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My brother and I are big into paint balling and aviation, and we've often wondered if it would be legal/possible to use an aircraft in a large scale paintball match? Mainly to drop paintballs, or perhaps even bags of paint, onto participants to simulate air support.

A few questions then, to cover this fully:

  • Is it even legal to begin with?
  • Assuming it is legal, what is the recommended way to do this? Plane size? Configuration considerations?
  • Lastly, is it legal to shoot back at the plane? Or is that just wildly unsafe?

I know, it's kind of a broader question, but I was hoping to get the entire answer in one place for ease of access to the answer.

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    $\begingroup$ Idea: Get a 3m radio airplane model, and make it a working variant: camera + bomb dropper. Cameras are a standard thing, bomb dropper can be a simple relay-controlled electromagnet, controlled e.g. by GPIO pins on a Raspberry Pi or Arduino. $\endgroup$
    – yo'
    Apr 1 '14 at 13:17
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    $\begingroup$ Wouldn't it be a lot cooler / simpler / more logical / more legal to simply drop a "paratrooper" who happens to drop something out of his pocket on the way down assuming he feels its safe etc? $\endgroup$ Apr 1 '14 at 21:38
  • $\begingroup$ @VinceMulhollon mmm, probably not simply because we play in wooded areas, so I don't know that we could guarantee a safe landing... Same problem as with a low flying plan actually. I think the quadcopter idea is my favorite at this point. $\endgroup$
    – Jay Carr
    Apr 2 '14 at 0:59
  • $\begingroup$ Sounds a little dangerous and a lotta fun! $\endgroup$
    – birdus
    May 6 '18 at 20:26
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Greg covered this very well in his answer.
The "miss by a surprising distance" bit is especially important here in the context of FAR 91.15 -- you would have to have a VERY large-scale paintball match for this to be viable, and some specific rules of engagement for the aircraft (always firing "into" the arena area as you don't want to miss and send a paintball into someone's car or kitchen window as that would get some distinctly unfriendly attention from the FAA, and probably the local constabulary).

Operationally, if we're doing this with an airplane high-wing aircraft would obviously be the order of the day (Cessna 152), with a pilot (whose sole job is to fly the airplane) and a gunner/bombardier (who is responsible for hitting targets on the ground). You really don't want the pilot distracted by the game.
Your weapons guy is going to have to be able to account for the aircraft's speed and altitude in targeting (which is pretty hard with an adjusted scope/bomb sight - doing it without one is going to be tough).

As for shooting back at the plane, if we're talking about a "regular" airplane (something manned, like a Cessna 152) I would advise against allowing players to target the plane. At safe operating altitudes they're unlikely to hit the plane, but if they do aircraft skin is very thin & dent repair is very expensive: If someone is lucky enough to score a hit it could be a costly "death".


Now, as a paintball player myself I will tell you that I find the idea of death from above when I can't shoot back at the aircraft to be rather unsporting!

What I would suggest instead is to deploy quadcopter drones. These can be had pretty cheaply and with some basic electronics skills they can be modified to carry/drop paint grenades (think Squadbusters) on your enemy.
If you want to get really fancy add a GoPro or some other remote camera to help with targeting, or add a paintball gun to the thing like these folks did.

The FAA's rules for "unmanned aerial systems" are still being written, but if you keep to the general rules for model aircraft (below 400 feet, and not charging anyone money for the drone's services) I think you'll be OK (when the final rules come out you'll have to review your drone for compliance).
As a bonus if the drone isn't too large and you have an indoor arena with liberally-minded management you may even be able to use your drone during indoor games.

(Kill rules for the drone and its operator are left as an exercise for the players.)

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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, quadcopters might be the better answer here easier to keep local... Hadn't really thought of that. $\endgroup$
    – Jay Carr
    Apr 1 '14 at 13:14
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For the FAA:

§ 91.15 Dropping objects.

No pilot in command of a civil aircraft may allow any object to be dropped from that aircraft in flight that creates a hazard to persons or property. However, this section does not prohibit the dropping of any object if reasonable precautions are taken to avoid injury or damage to persons or property.

It is legal to drop objects from an aircraft as long as no hazard is created. It's open to interpretation, but I would suggest that deliberately dropping bags of paint onto persons on the ground would be a hazard.

Also, having dropped objects (pumpkins) from an aircraft attempting to hit a target, I can tell you that it's really hard. You will most likely miss, probably by a surprising distance. If you do try this, make sure you have a lot of room. Also keep in mind your required altitude minimums, as you must be able to land safely if your engine fails at any time.

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    $\begingroup$ I would say that if everybody participating in the paintball match were aware of it and expecting it that it is not creating a hazard, especially with "reasonable bombs". Otherwise, I agree with you! $\endgroup$
    – Lnafziger
    Mar 31 '14 at 22:33
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    $\begingroup$ The AMA guidelines for RC planes has the same wording, so a drone strike would (or at least should) have the same restrictions. $\endgroup$
    – fooot
    Mar 31 '14 at 22:36
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    $\begingroup$ Also, terminal velocity of a paintball is definitely less than what the gun fires them at, so it may be even less of a hazard. $\endgroup$
    – fooot
    Mar 31 '14 at 22:37
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    $\begingroup$ Dropping something like a paint grenade would be pretty safe - the bigger worry in my mind (from "real plane" altitudes) would be the grenade rupturing on impact rather than spraying like it's supposed to. $\endgroup$
    – voretaq7
    Apr 1 '14 at 6:01
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Is it even legal to begin with?

I'm going to say no. Yes, 91.15 does allow the dropping of objects:

No pilot in command of a civil aircraft may allow any object to be dropped from that aircraft in flight that creates a hazard to persons or property. However, this section does not prohibit the dropping of any object if reasonable precautions are taken to avoid injury or damage to persons or property.

But 91.13(a) says.

(a) Aircraft operations for the purpose of air navigation. No person may operate an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.

There is also 91.119(a)-(c)

§ 91.119 Minimum safe altitudes: General. Except when necessary for takeoff or landing, no person may operate an aircraft below the following altitudes:

(a) Anywhere. An altitude allowing, if a power unit fails, an emergency landing without undue hazard to persons or property on the surface.

(b) Over congested areas. Over any congested area of a city, town, or settlement, or over any open air assembly of persons, an altitude of 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal radius of 2,000 feet of the aircraft.

(c) Over other than congested areas. An altitude of 500 feet above the surface, except over open water or sparsely populated areas. In those cases, the aircraft may not be operated closer than 500 feet to any person, vessel, vehicle, or structure.

For an aircraft to be at all involved in a paintball match, it will need to be doing low altitude maneuvers. This will violate one of the above laws. I'd say the most assured is 91.119(a). An engine failure in that situation would be very dangerous to the people on the ground.

I absolutely believe, based on my experience with the FAA investigators, they would not consider this legal.

Assuming it is legal, what is the recommended way to do this? Plane size? Configuration considerations?

My very strong recommendation is that you never, ever do this.

Lastly, is it legal to shoot back at the plane? Or is that just wildly unsafe?

18 U.S.C. § 32 : US Code - Section 32: Destruction of aircraft or aircraft facilities says you can get 20 years for damaging an airplane. I'd also say it's wildly unsafe.

I say this all as a pilot who has dropped his share of stuff from airplanes. Rubber chickens onto a toy house at an airport as part of a competition, toilet paper to tear up with my prop, pumpkins in the marsh and paper bags filled with flour. There is a time and a place for it, and a paintball match isn't it.

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  • $\begingroup$ Excellent points @Jungroth. After reading this and Vortaq7's answer, I think I'll be looking into using quadcopters instead. Smaller, nobody on board, you can theoretically shot back (so long as you're willing to risk the quadcopter...) $\endgroup$
    – Jay Carr
    Apr 1 '14 at 13:16
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    $\begingroup$ 91.119 a & b would seem pretty easy to comply with if the paintball field has a clear area sufficient to land the aircraft but that's starting to impose a lot of restrictions on the paintball match. It's also pretty likely the FAA might consider it "careless & reckless" under the 91.13 catch-all (about the only way to avoid that is to get the local FSDO to sanction the event, which is pretty unlikely). $\endgroup$
    – voretaq7
    Apr 1 '14 at 15:56
  • $\begingroup$ @voretaq7 FSDO? Whats that? $\endgroup$
    – Jay Carr
    Apr 2 '14 at 1:00
  • $\begingroup$ @JayCarr Sure, make me write the fsdo tag wiki :-) Flight Standards District Offices (FSDOs) are basically the FAA "branch offices" - they handle things like coordinating airshow/exhibition permits, waivers, and authorizations (which is what this would probably be most similar to). $\endgroup$
    – voretaq7
    Apr 2 '14 at 3:10

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