Your questions answered-The 400 foot limit for model aircraft.

In the interview with Deputy Director John McGraw, Mr. McGraw seemed to have very little to say about the aeromodeling exemption in the FAA reauthorization bill. He also made a worrisome comment about a 400 foot limit for models.

Rich Hanson, leader of the AMA Government and Regulatory Affairs:

There are a lot of unanswered question as to how the MA provisions in the reauthorization bill will be enacted, and we are still very much in the early stages of working through these issues. Shortly after President Obama signed the Bill we presented our position to the Unmanned Aircraft Program Office. The UAPO responded by advising they are waiting for clarification from FAA’s legal staff. It is clear to us that this Act reflects the view that aeromodeling is a relatively harmless activity and expresses Congress’ recognition of the level of safety the community has achieved through voluntary compliance with a community-based set of safety guidelines. As we move forward we will seek a viable means of enacting this legislative provision and establishing a mutually agreed upon set of criteria to ensure the continued safe operation of model aircraft in the national airspace.

Mr. McGraw’s mention of a 400’ ceiling is somewhat of a carryover from the guidelines established in AC 91-57 and has been FAA’s premise in terms of separating small UAS from the manned aircraft environment. During the crafting of the language in the MA amendment to the reauthorization bill the inclusion of a 400’ criteria was considered. However, AMA resisted this limitation with the belief that it is overreaching, unnecessary and potentially detrimental to the hobby. Ultimately the congressional leadership agreed with the AMA and elected not to include this restriction as part of the minimum safety criteria stated in the Bill.

AMA’s 75 years of experience tells us that MA operations above 400’ pose little to no risk to the manned aircraft community. The only time this activity is of concern is when model aircraft are operated in close proximity to airports. As such, AMA stands by its 3mi/400’ safety criteria established in the AMA National Safety Code. Though there are other mitigation measures that may need to be considered, AMA will continue to advocate to maintain the aeromodeling community’s access to the national airspace.


To learn more about the efforts of AMA’s Government relations page please visit our website,


  1. If you’re wondering where the 400′ limit came from, it’s ages old. FAA regulations require aircraft to remain 500″ AGL at all times unless landing – 1,000′ AGL over populated areas. By generally operating under 400′ and always more than three miles from an airport, model aircraft and manned aircraft have coexisted peacefully for longer than I’ve been alive. The long distance record setting flights for free flight aircraft notwithstanding, I’ve never heard of a problem, even with them.

    Here’s what’s bugging me – I’ve seen pictures of bird strikes – I’ve talked to pilots who’ve had bird strikes – I’ve even seen an actual dent in a wing leading edge, from a bird strike. I’ve been flying model airplanes since 1970, and big planes since 1980, and I’ve NEVER heard of a model airplane strike. EVER ! OK, one time an idiot at an airshow put an R/C helicopter in the wrong place. That’s it – one time.

    When the NPRM comes out, it’s going to be important to make the distinction between model aircraft flown for sport and UAS flown for profit or other purposes, otherwise the FAA is going to try and mandate that 400′ limit for everyone. I’ve dealt with the FAA on airspace restrictions for almost 10 years, and their answer is ALWAYS the same – more restrictions.

    1. The Faa requires pilots to fly no closer than 500 FROM persons or property in sparsely populated areas. That means that a pilot can fly next to the ground if 500 foot horizontal clearance is maintained from persons or property. Or, the pilot must stay 500 feet above. In densely populated areas the requirement is 1000 above or horizontally from. Imagine if a person is standing in the desert. There is a 500 foot bubble that goes to the ground at a distance of 500 feet. Therefor a pilot can fly as low as he wants if at least 500 feet away from said person in the desert.
      There is NO rule that keeps pilots from flying next to the ground.

      1. Rex,

        AMA members operating within the programing of our CBO must stay at least 25 feet away from people/spectators. This rule can be read in the AMA safety code (section B.(6)).

        (B)6. With the exception of events flown under official AMA Competition Regulations, excluding takeoff and landing, no powered model may be flown outdoors
        closer than 25 feet to any individual, except for the pilot and the pilot’s helper(s) located at the flightline.

        Flying near personal property can also be found the AMA Safety Code under (section B. (1)).

        (B)1. All pilots shall avoid flying directly over unprotected people, vessels, vehicles or structures and shall avoid endangerment of life and property of others.

  2. There needs to be a better distinction between hobbyist, for profit, and commercial use. Size and intention matter greatly.

    There are major differences between:
    Adam – Flies model planes for fun, in and/or outside regulated sites,
    Bob – Flies the same as Adam, but supports his hobby by doing some “for profit” work on the side taking photos/video for real estate, etc.
    Charlie – Flies automated model aircraft outside populated areas, and
    Doug – Works for a company or University, flying/testing large “full scale” drones, such as the military and border patrol uses.

    Additionally, the FAA should consider adopting Model Aircraft airspace above and around sanctioned flying fields. This will inform real pilots, via VFR charts, where there are areas of potentially high flying model aircraft that they should avoid. Similar to skydiving areas.

    The geographical area should also determine the rules and regulations, much as they do for real pilots. If I drive an hour out of town, or to my local mountain range, I know there is an extremely small chance, if any, a real aircraft will be flying in that area, and I will be more inclined to fly at higher altitudes and farther distances than I would in the city or at my house.

    All the regulations and laws the govt can draw up, wont address all potential situations, nor will it prevent all pilots from flying beyond what they find acceptable.

    I do think there is a great need to address full scale drone use within the FAA airspace, however, small hobbyist aircraft need to not be clumped under this category of aircraft and subjected to the same regulations.

  3. Michael, You make some very good points…

    The distinction between model aircraft (hobby) operations and commercial/public use UAS operations are relatively clear. The special rule for model aircraft in the FAA reauthorization bill specifically states that this provision only applies to model aircraft “flown strictly for hobby or recreational use”. The only other activity included is the “development” of model aircraft, i.e. hobby manufacturers.

    In the examples you sited, Adam would be the only one that would fall within the criteria of the special rule, this is assuming he is participating within a qualified nationwide community-based safety program such as AMA.

    The airspace issues are much more complex and have been the topic of much discussion over the past several years. If you’re familiar with the Federal Aviation Regulations you know that the national airspace is broken down into several classes of airspace based upon the type and operation of the air traffic within the airspace. For the most part the central issue is the air traffic arriving at and departing from airports, heliports and seaplane basis. This is where there is the greatest concentration of aircraft, where aircraft routes converge at lower altitudes and whether there exists a greater need for air traffic control. AMA contends that the airspace in and around airports is the only airspace in which there is a need for greater attention to model aircraft operations. This is reflected in the current guidance in AMA’s National Safety Code and the criteria presented in the special rule established by Congress.

    It’s almost certain the new sUAS rule will present an additional set of issues and criteria to be followed by those modelers who choose not to participate within a community-based safety program, but for now, the best approach is to continue to operate your model aircraft in a safe and responsible manner and to follow the guidance established in AMA’s safety code and related safety documents.

    Rich Hanson
    AMA Government and Regulatory Affairs

  4. My concern is; “what about Bob?” Will he be prevented from being able to support his hobby by doing aerial photography / video for real estate or film productions assuming he’s following safety procedures? I’ve recently heard that the LAPD issued a warning to real estate agents in Los Angeles that they are forbidden from using model aircraft to obtain pictures of their listings. (Not sure under what authority they can do that) And this was in response to an ABC news report aired that; “Real Estate agents are flying military drones in your neighborhood”. The people that perpetratedthat report on the public are criminal in my opinion. What are people like Bob supposed to do since it appears that the AMA is only concerned with protecting hobbyists at AMA fields who can’t / don’t earn money with / for their hobby.

    1. To be honest, equating the use of unmanned aircraft for a commercial purposes as somehow supporting the hobby is a bit of a stretch. AMA was not founded for the purpose of creating an infrastructure for commercial enterprises and it is not AMA’s mission to enable the commercial use of unmanned aircraft.

      If Bob intends to use unmanned aircraft to conduct an aerial photography business, he’ll need to follow the applicable rules and regulations as would any other business professional.

      Rich Hanson
      AMA Government and Regulatory Affairs

  5. “If Bob intends to use unmanned aircraft to conduct an aerial photography business, he’ll need to follow the applicable rules and regulations as would any other business professional.”

    As long as those “rules and regs” are not arbitrary and capricious in their nature, in order to stifle the rights of Bob to conduct his business.

    Remember, these are the same bureaucrats like Sec. of Energy Chu….who recommended wasting $500,000,000 of the taxpayers money on Solyndra, which was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg…..because his agenda is to have the price gas skyrocket.

    People with agendas would love to stifle Bob’s commercial endeavor.

    Keep up the good work, Rich.

    I just wanted to make the point that, we the people, lobby our Congress to address our concerns, and that in turn, Congress makes Constitutional laws…..and the FAA then acts…not the other way around. We are in danger when we allow our great country to be “ruled” by bureaucrats.

    1. Gene, As individuals I think we are all sensitive to this issue and concerned about the intrusive nature of arbitrary and capricious government regulations. I personally lean significantly to the right and consider myself to be a conservative.

      However, as an organization, AMA is focused on and has committed its resources to protecting the flying privileges of the recreational model aircraft enthusiasts and ensuring access to the national airspace by the aeromodeling community. This is our charge and our fiduciary responsibility to our membership.

      Rich Hanson
      AMA Government and Regulatory Affairs

  6. Rob’s business is to take aerial photos or video. I want to keep my property private, with no one peeping on it without my permission. I especially don’t want an unmanned aircraft that is subject to many failure modes flying over my home. If you leave it up to industry to police themselves and respect privacy and ensure safety you are at the mercy of the profit motive. The US government is the only entity with enough power to limit the excesses of the free enterprise system and protect the rest of us. With a much larger population than in the Founders day concentrated in cities, and technology that the Founders could not have imagined, we need enforceable rules. I hope that AMA’s good efforts to avoid restrictive rules pay off, and we don’t need to act like we won’t respect rules if they inconvenience us.

    1. Aerial photography for real estate marketing is not about “peeping” over your back yard. Photo privacy laws still apply whether it’s from the air or some guy in the next house with a telescope.

      But try to keep your pants on in your back yard anyway.

  7. Is the use of an AMA flying site by a company who is developing, testing and accomplishing demo flights to customers for sales appropriate? I know they will operate under a different set of regulations, but could it possibly endanger the ability for everyone operating at that airfield to fall under the CBO based exemption to the more restrictive FARs?

    1. Dave, The use of an AMA chartered club flying site as a test range for the development of an unmanned aircraft system is not necessarily prohibited and need not endanger the hobbyist status (CBO) of the modelers using the same location. However, such proof of concept testing would clearly fall in the UAS arena and must be conducted under FAA’s guidelines and requirements. First and foremost, the landowner would have to approve and allow the activity to occur on the property, and there would undoubtedly be liability issues that will need to be resolved. Secondly, if this is a commercial entity, the operator most first obtain a special/experimental airworthiness certificate from the FAA, or if a public entity, a Certificate of Authorization (COA). Lastly, any such UAS operation must be conducted in accordance with the provisions and criteria specified in the airworthiness certificate or COA.

      Rich Hanson
      AMA Government and Regulatory Affairs

  8. Point well taken here Gene. Wish there was a “Commercial AMA” to help us out as they are doing a great job, I think, with the modeling issue. Unfortunately I see regulation curtailing once again a wonderful new commercial enterprise. So far it appears pilots licenses will be required etc.
    The sillyness of all this is what about using an MCQX quad copter with a little camera. Weighs what, 2 ounces, takes pretty good video, see my clubs web page, flying over a house if that comes under FAA regulation this is all about curtailing business and all about money. I get safety issues but in this example there are none! If he gets paid 100 bucks to help out his buddy the real estate agent he is violating federal law and don’t tell me they won’t be looking at real estate video! for a cool video of our secretary flying around in Nankin Hobby in Farmington Michigan..

    1. Exactly. It’s the size that matters, not what it’s being used for. The gov’t just can’t help itself from over-regulation. Since traditionally they’ve had more right/ability in regulating commercial operations than private citizens, they are simply taking advantage of that fact. So now they’ll have to hire people to review such applications – isn’t that totally insane? Will it increase safety one iota realistically?

  9. After reading this article and the various comments, I come to the the conclusion that, thus far, nothing has changed or will change regarding the recreational RC flyer who operates within a half-mile, for instance, of a heliport and the RC models are flown at or below 400 feet AGL. As I recall, AMA has stated that in this scenario, there is currently no requirement to contact the heliport operators for permission to fly RC aircraft anywhere inside a 3 mile radius from the heliport, although the proposed new FAA regulations may require that such permission be established between the heliport authorities and the RC pilot in question. Am I correct on this?

    1. Curently under the FAA Advisory Circular (AC 91-57) modelers are advised to notify the airport and/or ATC when operating within 3 miles of an airport. Under the recently passed FAA Modernization and Reform Act this distance is extended to 5 miles.

      AMA is currently working with the FAA in the development of policies and procedures to be used in enacting the MA provision in the new law. AMA will advise its members once the new policies are established. For now modelers should follow AC 91-57, the AMA Safety Code and continue to operate their model aircraft in a safe and responsible manner.

      Rich Hanson
      AMA Government and Regulatory Affairs

  10. I don’t agree commercial operators should have different rules. If somebody screws up and does something unsafe, physics (and the injured person) doesn’t care if the person controlling the R/C airplane was a commercial operator or hobbyist. Common sense says the size of the UAV is the key factor, and the fact that basically nothing has happened in decades of R/C airplanes. That’s why we have spotters – to avoid full scale airplanes just as we’d do if we were in the airplane flying it.
    If someone has a small commercial UAV and stays under 400′ when near an airport, and follows the other existing rules (has a spotter for example), then what does it matter if he’s getting paid versus doing it as a hobby?

    Conversely, if a hobbyist (or commercial UAV) is flying a huge and/or very fast R/C airplane, then maybe it should be restricted (as they already are).

  11. Come-on… If the only difference in use is the taking of money, then there is NO difference. If a person operates with-in the rules of \\\”hobby\\\” he is with-in the rules. The \\\”commercial\\\” concept seems a carry-over from manned aircraft use. Even then, it is with-in the rules to take money for carrying passengers if it is done for expenses.
    It makes no sense to not allow the same actions that are allowed with no money changing hands. You are trying to control actions (flying UAV\\\’s). Not trade.

  12. Hmmm…. If a private pilots license is required to fly a drone … doesn’t it make perfect sense that those drone flying hours are logged and counted toward actual flight time for keeping up your hours for your private pilots license??? 🙂 always looking for that silver lining 🙂

  13. I think that people who are complaining about a quad taking some grainy video of their house from a few hundred feet away need to take up their privacy issues with the Google Earth people before they start worrying about models. 😛

  14. If we are to be part of the “National Airspace System”, where are our federal airport improvement funds? ; )

  15. AC91-57A part E and the 2007 FAA Policy Statement seem to suggest flying over 400 ft is a safety hazard and enforceable per PL 112-95 B. Several R/C categories routinely fly above 400ft, are those categories now dead?

    If flying over 400ft is deemed “unsafe” how would that affect primary insurance coverage and AMA coverage?

  16. What is the AMA’s official position on the 400 foot limit? Is this a hard rule or is it a recommendation? My club has very active pattern and sailplane groups. Neither The current AMA pattern sequences cannot be flown without going above 400 feet for some of the vertical maneuvers and sailplanes come off the high start at over 400 feet. If the 400 foot limit is a hard rule, we have a serious problem.

    1. Hi Rob,

      We promote 400′ as a ceiling to the general public.

      Hobbyists who fly in compliance with Sec 336, are permitted to fly above 400′ as long as they abide by the safety code of an organization like the AMA. Sailplanes naturally will exceed 400′ and may continue to fly above 400′ as long as the pilot abides by the AMA policies and do not interfere with full scale aircraft.

      1. So is this AMA saying this or FAA saying this about continuing to fly above 400′. I heard from the FAA briefing that 400′ was the ceiling for all model aircraft and I dang sure know FAA triumphs AMA. We need a clear answer for this will impact sailplanes and sailplane clubs around the country.

  17. The law is very clear that pilots who belong to a community based organization like the AMA are exempt from FAA regulations including a 400′ ceiling limit. If you are an AMA member, fly within our guidelines, and do not interfere with full scale you can fly your sailplanes.

    1. The law is also very clear that the “Federal Aviation Administration may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft”.

    2. Thanks Chad but this is “sooo” frustrating and can potentially have serious consequences! Neither the FAA nor AMA is giving clear guidelines on this issue (400’ rule).
      In yesterday’s conference call (, The FAA mentioned the 400’ rule again. They also did not recognize the AMA’s (CBO) rules as being a recognized set of rules. The FAA clearly, in my opinion, doesn’t care at all about our hobby. The FAA is catering to the uninformed general public and media to save face under their mandate to promulgate new rules for the SUAS commercial industry (Sec 332).
      On the other hand, Sec 336 still survives and it specifically prohibits the FAA from making new rules. Now, Sec 336 has no reference to any altitude restrictions. It specifically mentions that the rules under any CBO (like the AMA) remains in effect, putting the ball back in AMA’s court when it comes to “rules of flight” and for this discussion, any altitude limitation. Here is the confusion, the AMA recommends a 400’ limit but as you just said, it’s not a hard ceiling. A 400’ limit would simply not be consistent with a large part of model aircraft operations (Jets, giant scale, sailplanes etc…).
      Additionally what is the AMA’s position on the new AC91-57A part E, “e. Model aircraft operators should follow best practices including limiting operations to 400 feet above ground level (AGL)”?
      While an AC is not regulation per say, when tied to Far 91-13, it is enforceable.
      Without a clear altitude rule, AMA members are potentially exposed to FAA legal actions (or worse) under FAR part 91-13 (more on this later).

      The FAA had a perfect opportunity and they failed to take it.
      The new registration requirement clearly goes against Sec 336. Registration requirements of SUAV’s IS a new rules regardless of how the FAA twists existing rules and repurpose them. Simply put, the public recognition, by the FAA, of the AMA (under Sec 336) and its membership process would have been the perfect solution for the registration process of SUAV’s and would have been in compliance with Sec 336, SPECIAL RULE FOR MODEL AIRCRAFT and Sec 332. INTEGRATION OF CIVIL UNMANNED AIRCRAFT SYSTEMS INTO NATIONAL AIRSPACE SYSTEM. It would also have been a lot less of a burden on the taxpayers. The FAA did not have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to model aviation flown under a CBO and in compliance with Sec 336.

      Nothing the FAA has done so far with regards to SUAV’s and Model Aircrafts flown under a CBO will result in an improvement in safety. However, the recognition of the AMA and its sanctioned fields could have, especially by marking those fields on aviation sectional charts. This would enable full-scale aircraft operators an opportunity to stay clear of those sites. That would be a proactive separation of different operations of aircrafts in the NAS (since model airplanes are now aircrafts under the FAR’s).
      Personally I think this airspace should be a 1 mile radius up to and including 1500’ AGL, this would realistically cover a high percentage of all types of model aircrafts (especially giant scale, jets and sailplanes which would NOT be able to comply with a 400’ ceiling rule), thus not criminalizing a big segment of AMA members that have flown safely for more than 50 years. I feel the AMA must be more clear and realistic about today’s model airplane performances and clearly support a more realistic 1500’ rules, at least for AMA sanctioned fields that are more than 5 miles from an airport.
      Is there any efforts from the AMA to have sanctioned fields be put on sectional charts and have an airspace designation specified?

      There are so many more safety improvements that could have been done but these new registration requirements definitively will not achieve any.

      The AMA, while I know they put out their best efforts in trying to exempt our hobby from these new rules, failed in the media and with the general public. I feel a national media campaign would have been appropriate to clearly differentiate and separate model aircrafts and our hobby (conducted safely under a CBO) with the “Drone Factor” so embraced by the media. The media has sensationalized the Drones in the general public’s eyes and as a result our hobby will suffer great setbacks over time as the FAA will surely come up with more road blocks for our flying of model aircrafts.

      I understand the need for regulations for SUAV’s especially in light of the new wave of multi rotor sales to the general public that do not meet the requirements of Sec 336. I feel the FAA should have been more focused on that segment of the industry and not take the approach of “one size fits all “ regulations.

      Finally, one of my biggest issues with this registration requirement is:
      The FAA will now have a registry of SUAV operators and will likely cross this with licensed full-scale pilots. I have been a model airplane pilot for over 40 years; I am also licensed airline transport pilot (ATP) with over 32 years of experience. The FAA has, on numerous occasions, stated that SUAV’s fall under the existing Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) and more specifically has referenced FAR 91-13 (Careless and reckless operations of an aircraft) and published AC 91-57A. You can see where this is potentially headed.
      Aside from the current obvious problem of “Drones” near airports and full scale planes, interference with airborne fire fighting and or law enforcement so publicized by the media and clearly a safety issue, will the FAA come out to my flying field and evaluate my flying? What will constitute careless and reckless flying of a model airplane? Is flying 3D at 5’ over the ground careless and reckless? If your airplane breaks up in a high-G maneuver, will you be held liable for poor construction or better yet, in case of an ARF, will they go after the manufacturer? If there is anything the FAA (or you local law enforcement) don’t like about my operation of a model airplane (safety related or not), will they be able to affect my livelihood as a professional pilot and go after my pilot’s license?
      As you can see, this is a slippery slope. Without a clear separation of Model Aircraft Operation (as intended by Sec 336) and the FAA, the many of us that share the passion of aviation in both full scale and model aircrafts, now have a new and unknown exposure to our professional livelihood. This is why the altitude issue is so important; a lack of clarity and guidance can have serious professional and financial consequences for many of AMA members that are also licensed pilots.

Comments are closed.