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I'm trying to get up to speed on drone licensing and regulation. I'm in central Houston, well away from either of our major airports; but there are literally 50 heliports listed on B4UFLY as being in my immediate area. AirMap shows 32 of them actually overlapping my current position. Houston did just get the brand-new shiny "Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability", but of course only for the two major airports.

I'm absolutely not interested in doing anything wrong; but does this mean I can't legally fly a drone in circles around my back yard at eye level without calling 32 different helicopter operators to let them know? If I managed to find a nearby spot where only, say, four or five areas were overlapping, could I actually call them and notify them, and would that make me properly compliant?

Answers relating either to Section 336 or Part 107 are appreciated. At the moment I'm just a hobbyist; but I do plan to get a remote pilot certification, because my ultimate use is academic research, which falls under commercial rules. Thanks!

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Tl;dr: Yes, you are required to contact all airports and heliports within a 5-mile radius.

Unless you have a part 107 certificate you are operating under the rules of 14 CFR Part 101, Subpart E - Special Rule for Model Aircraft. Since the FAA is generally prohibited from setting rules for hobbyist operations, the only specific regulations are under this subpart. They are frustratingly unclear and refer most rulemaking to undefined “nationwide community-based organizations.” Although which organizations, or even what such an organization consists of, are not defined, the FAA works closely with the Academy of Model Aeronautics which publishes a handbook for safe operation.

One of the few specific regulations subpart E does include is the following.

14 CFR § 101.41 (e) 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.

This means that to be in compliance you must notify all 32 heliports in your area. Note that it does not say you must get permission, only that you must provide prior notice. It also doesn’t say what kind of notice, nor how far in advance, nor if you must notify them every time you fly or if it can be an ongoing situation.

Mongo’s suggestion of mailing a letter to each one would be a good approach. Make sure you keep a copy of the letter sent and a record of who you sent them to. That way if a problem arises you have documentation that you did make the required notification.

Beyond notification, there is no mention of airspace classes, flight restrictions or anything else. It only specifies that:

14 CFR § 101.41 (d) The aircraft is operated in a manner that does not interfere with and gives way to any manned aircraft

That’s not to say that you don’t have to follow flight restrictions. That would fall under the elastic clause:

14 CFR § 101.43 Endangering the safety of the National Airspace System. No person may operate model aircraft so as to endanger the safety of the national airspace system.

If you are planning to fly for research then you should certainly get a part 107 suas pilot certificate. Part 107 regulations are much more well-defined. If operating under part 107 there is no requirement to notify the airports and heliports. An suas license requires you to know how to read charts and know what type of airspace you are operating in. By default part 107 is restricted to uncontrolled airspace (class G). To operate in controlled airspace you must apply for a waiver and follow the rules of the waiver. Once you have a waiver for controlled airspace the requirements for getting permission depend on the specific airspace you need to fly in. Under part 107, in class G airspace there is no requirement to notify anyone.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is all fantastic; thanks very much. It's not technically any different than what I've already read for myself, but the context and experience is everything! $\endgroup$ – Jenn D. May 19 '18 at 20:34
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Simply put, and barring any other airspace issues, you will need to contact each of the airports.

You decision to go for a 107 certificate is a good move, because there are many complexities operating in an urban setting.

If you have 32 heliports impacting your back yard operation, I would contact each one. It may seem burdensome, but an approach I have taken is to mail a letter to each airport manager, informing them of where and generally when I expect to operate. I usually specify that this will be ongoing, and include my contact information, and the location(s) I expect to operate from indicated on an included map.

As for eye-level, it doesn't matter. As soon as you leave the blade of grass, your device falls under the FAA domain. If you are learning and therefore conducting activities under 101, you might document that in a flight log, in advance of your flight(s).

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  • $\begingroup$ This FAA link seems to say that up to 400 feet above the ground, (or 400 feet from a "structure") is perfectly acceptable. $\endgroup$ – abelenky May 18 '18 at 13:22
  • $\begingroup$ If you are flying under part 101, then you will need to notify each airport within 5 miles. You will find this in the FAA UAS FAQs. Flying is any activity conducted above the surface...not 400 feet. So once you leave the blade of grass, you are flying. $\endgroup$ – mongo May 18 '18 at 13:30
  • $\begingroup$ @abelenky You’re both right in different ways. The 400 feet is for part 107 pilots. The “contact every stinking hospital heliport in the continental US” is for section 336. Once you have a part 107 license you aren’t required to contact everyone. You follow the airspace rules and any waivers you have and request ATC clearance through the website. $\endgroup$ – TomMcW May 19 '18 at 3:42
  • $\begingroup$ The idea of a one-time blanket notification is a huge help; if that's legit, then I don't mind doing it at all. It was the idea of technically having to call up 32 different entities every time I took off that was making me think I would never be able to fly (as a hobbyist) anywhere near my house. $\endgroup$ – Jenn D. May 19 '18 at 20:34
  • $\begingroup$ I have done that, and I have found no regulatory prohibition of an ongoing notification. I did discuss it with an FSDO inspector who handles UAS enforcement, and he found no problem with it. However that is not a letter of interpretation. He suggested rather than a one-time phone call, to do so in a hard copy letter, and I adopted his suggestion. When traveling I sometimes still use a phone call and say that this is for multiple instances. $\endgroup$ – mongo May 20 '18 at 0:57

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