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Seeing The UAS World Upside Down

By Patrick C. Miller | February 19, 2015

Timothy McCulloch got his pilot’s license before he got his driver’s license and readily admits that he likes to fly upside down. It makes sense because in addition to being an aviation attorney, he’s a full-time certified flight instructor who specializes in advanced aerobatics. Some of his 5,500 hours of flight time includes flying the world’s most advanced aerobatic trainers.

When he’s not flying, the Phoenix-based attorney for the Hinshaw and Culbertson law firm spends much of his time jousting with the Federal Aviation Administration in the courtroom on behalf of clients who need assistance dealing with the agency’s regulatory labyrinth or defending other pilots from its enforcement arm.

When I talked to McCulloch for his take on the recently released proposed FAA regulations for small unmanned aerial systems, he brought up an interesting point I hadn’t considered and, frankly, haven’t heard anyone else discuss.

After describing the tightly regulated and expensive process of how manned aircraft are certified for airworthiness—not to mention the time and expense involved in becoming a licensed commercial pilot—McCulloch brought up the coming paradigm shift UAS technology will have on aviation.

“All of a sudden, you’re taking unmanned aerial vehicles and doing a lot of jobs that manned aircraft used to do,” he said.

“You have a large base of professional pilots who paid $100,000 for their education. They’ve spent all this money on becoming certificated and all of a sudden you’re going to have a whole new class of aircraft where the certificates are not going to be helpful,” McCulloch explained. 

And then there are the aircraft mechanics who’ve spent countless hours and a great deal of money to achieve and maintain the certifications the FAA says they need to assure that manned aircraft are airworthy. With the proposed FAA sUAS regulations, the requirements for those jobs will be far less strenuous.

“Now they’re going to be done by someone who can be 17 to 18 years old who takes a knowledge test once every couple of years. And the UAS, they’re going to be maintained by uncertificated mechanics,” he noted.

All of this might very well cause a backlash, which McCulloch expects will make for some interesting reading when the FAA begins receiving comments on its proposed sUAS regulations. 

“I think those guys are going to start to yell and scream,” McCulloch said. “They have an economic reason to push for more regulation, sort of a job security thing. I think that’s going to be an interesting tension to watch.”

He could be right. It could be a fight that turns the aviation world upside down.