5 Big Risks of Hiring Illegal Drone Pilots – sUAS News
Persons in the United States who wish to fly for commercial (non-recreational) purposes must have an aviator certificate. Most people fly under part 107 and get the remote pilot certificate. It involves paying money to take a test. Some people choose to simply operate illegally without a remote pilot certificate. While some might say, “I’m safe because I don’t fly,” there are still serious reputational and legal consequences for whoever hires the illegal drone pilots, including even jail time.
Reputational Risks with Illegal Drone Pilots
First, flying without a remote pilot certificate is a federal crime. Yes, the FAA has fined people, see my article detailing the FAA’s 70 lawsuits against drone operators to also include one for $1.9 million, but the Department of Justice can also step in and prosecute penally the pilot of wanabe.
49 USC 46306(b) says, “A person shall be fined under Title 18, imprisoned for a maximum of 3 years, or both, if the person— . . . (7) knowingly and voluntarily serves or attempts to serve in any capacity as an airman without an airman’s certificate authorizing the individual to serve in that capacity[.]“So stealing illegally is a federal crime. This charge sometimes happens. See this indictment:
(Operating as an airman without a legitimate airman’s certificate)
From or about January 4, 2016, to or about November 28, 2020, in the Central District of Florida and elsewhere, Defendant, HOWARD D. FARLEY, JR., knowingly and voluntarily served as an Airman, c that is, as a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Private Pilot Aviator, without having a valid Private Pilot Aviator Certificate in his name authorizing him to serve in that capacity, because he was flying the aircraft N242TA in United States airspace knowing that his FAA Airman Certificate was fraudulently issued under the identity of another person In violation of 49 USC § 46306(b)(7).
The name of a large, well-known real estate brokerage firm even made its way into FAA prosecution documents due to the fact that the wanabe pilot illegally flew the drone for real estate listings. It’s embarassing.
Hiring illegal operators can tarnish your name, brand and reputation. You are known as “that guy”. Detecting the true harm of being “that guy” is difficult because people mentally choose to make themselves aloof/unavailable/unreachable. Deals are made with other people without your knowledge. Proverbs 22:1 brings clarity:
A good name should be chosen over great wealth, and favor is better than silver or gold.
Jail time and illegal drone pilots
You might say, “I can’t get in trouble because I’m not stealing. Bad.
49 USC 46306(b) says, “A person shall be fined under Title 18, imprisoned for a maximum of 3 years, or both, if the person— . . . (8) knowingly and voluntarily employs for service or uses in any capacity as an airman a person who does not have an airman’s certificate authorizing him to serve in that capacity[.]”In that indictment above, here is what Count Seven said,
(Employ or use an airman without a legitimate airman’s certificate)
From or about January 4, 2016 until or about November 28, 2020, in the Central District of Florida and elsewhere, Defendant DUKE HANH Till VU knowingly and willfully employed for the service or use in any capacity as an airman, HOWARD D. FARLEY, JR., who did not have a valid private pilot’s certificate in her name authorizing her to serve in that capacity, in that she used HOWARD D. Farley, JR. to operate aircraft N242TA in US airspace, knowing that his FAA airman certificate was fraudulently obtained under the identity of another person.
In violation of 49 USC § 46306(b)(8).
The uncertified pilot AND the person who hired him both blew themselves up.
49 USC 46306(b) also says it is unlawful for a person who “(5) possesses an aircraft eligible for registration under section 44102 of that title and knowingly and willfully operates, attempts to operate, Where allows another person to fly the aircraft when—” the aircraft is not registered. (emphasis mine).
And before you say something like, “I guess I won’t be investigating whether the person is illegal or not, so I can never be conscious and willful,” turning a blind eye to the person you’re hiring is unwise. On the one hand, a personal injury lawyer may try to argue that you negligently hired the illegal operator because you did not verify their remote pilot certificate and if you had, you would have discovered that he was ignoring regulations such as 107.39 prohibiting flights over non-participating persons and 107.19(c) requiring the pilot to ensure that the drone “will not pose undue danger to other persons, other aircraft or other property in the event of loss of control of the small unmanned aircraft for any right.” Ya, when it comes to the word “everything,” your defense attorney will be more stuck than a van that got muddy.
You could lose your drone
The indictment above contained a nasty little surprise:
If convicted of violation of 49 USC § 46306(b), defendants shall forfeit to the United States, pursuant to 49 USC § 46306(d)(l) and 28 USC § 2461(c), an aircraft whose use is related to a violation of paragraph (b) of this section, or which aids or facilitates a violation, whether or not a person is accused of the violation.
If your drone was used in the illegal act, you could have the drone confiscated from the US government. Have fun paying the legal fees when the ways to make money are gone.
Wasted business resources (time and money)
I’ll just copy-paste language from the Skypan petition for the summary of the execution of the subpoena filed by the Department of Justice:
Skypan is a private, for-profit photography company. . . who specializes in aerial photography. The company has advertised on the internet its use of unmanned aircraft to produce aerial photography and videography products that cannot be achieved through conventional use of manned aircraft. . . . In early September 2012, a second anonymous complaint was filed with the Farmingdale FSDO stating that Skypan was once again engaged in unmanned commercial aerial photography in New York City’s Class B airspace area. ASI John Wilkens, Farmingdale FSDO, investigated the allegation that Skypan operated an unmanned aerial plane in violation of federal aviation regulations. On or about September 19, 2012, ASI John Wilkens contacted Mr. Richard Dubrow, employee of Macklowe Properties, regarding the circumstances surrounding their contract with Skypan for aerial photography services. Mr. Dubrow confirmed that Macklowe Properties had entered into a contract with Skypan for commercial aerial photography of a development at 432 Park Avenue, New York, NY.
On November 11, 2012, ASI Wilkens sent a letter of inquiry to Skypan advising that the FAA was investigating the operation of an unmanned aircraft system for commercial photography purposes by Skypan International on or about the 8 May 2013, near 432 Park Avenue, New York, New York.
On December 12, 2012, the FAA issued an administrative subpoena to Macklowe Properties requiring the company to produce all business documents, agreements, contracts, photographic products and/or documents and records of any payment relating to an aerial photography contract. between Macklowe Properties and Skypan. Macklowe Properties complied with the FAA’s administrative subpoena and produced various business documents, receipts, copies of photographs, and written statements clarifying the dates the unmanned aerial photographs took place.
How would you react if you received a subpoena? Here is the one received by Skypan.
The subpoena received by Skypan contained a long list of demands. All 9 items started with “Everything and Everything”, which gives you an idea of the breadth and depth of the FAA’s subpoena.
Obviously, after receiving this, you would consult a lawyer and pay him, which means $$$ out of pocket to determine what you should do.
You and your employees must take the time to earn money to try to comply with the subpoena. It’s like doing an itemized tax return where you throw one of your vendors under the bus and try to do damage control with an expensive lawyer watching over things. Remember the petition set forth,
[T]The FAA has issued a duces tecum administrative subpoena to Macklowe Properties requiring the company to produce all business documents, agreements, contracts, photographic products and/or documents and records of any payment relating to an aerial photography contract between Macklowe Properties and Skypan. Macklowe Properties complied with the FAA’s administrative subpoena and produced various business documents, receipts, copies of photographs, and written statements clarifying the dates the unmanned aerial photographs took place.
Others might start to question your judgment
If you or your business are embroiled in all of this, you may need to explain to your wife, customers, suppliers, colleagues, employees, and boss what is going on.
Yeah. It’s stressful.
You don’t believe this can happen?
The DOJ filing was accompanied by a statement from an FAA inspector that gives you an idea of the stress created by the investigation:
A written request to provide documents to aid in the investigation was made to Macklowe Properties on September 26, 2012. There was no response to the written request. Telephone follow-up [conversation] with Mr. Dubrow was held on October 12, 2012 to verify the status of the document request. Mr. Dubrow confirmed that his company had received the request and he forwarded the letter to his boss. Mr Dubrow said they would email the status of the written request. On October 19, 2012, the General Counsel for Macklowe Properties forwarded a letter requesting a subpoena detailing the information they were seeking. A subpoena has been issued as requested.
There are many risks in hiring illegal operators. You have to ask yourself, “Is it worth it?
If your company regularly hires drone pilots and you want me to check them out to make sure everything is legit, contact me. I can view their derogations, exemptions, authorizations, etc.
Also consider starting your own in-house drone operation. I have helped many companies start drone operations. Please consider my services for obtaining waivers, creating manuals, providing consultation to assist General Counsel or Program Managers with regulatory compliance, etc.