See related article  Who Owns the Air | Law Enforcement Run Amok | When Judges Get it Wrong

In October, 2020, A Phoenix area pilot, Joshua Stanaland, was cited for flying his paramotor OVER a park in Arizona. I was tagged on a social media post, and after looking at the basics, contacted the pilot for this article.

We must be leery of government overreach, an outgrowth of human nature when granted authority. First a few notes about what this case is NOT.

Violation of any FAA Rule?

FAA officials are not involved, nor would there be any grounds since he didn’t violate any FAA regulations. As ultralights we have no 500 foot rule (airplanes do: FAR 91.119). Launch and landing was in G airspace, with the cruise and overflight likely in E if he climbed above 1200 feet AGL. The weather was good. After overlaying his flight path on a high res (zoomed in) satellite image, we can see the flight traversed only sparsely populated areas, avoiding issues with 103.15 on congested areas.

He was within the lateral boundaries of an “agency area” (bottom of legend excerpt above) as shown on the chart overlay below. But avoidance of low flight over these areas is “requested.” Plus, it’s not what the citation was about. Even if it were, when prohibitions are codified into rules (like the Grand Canyon) they exempt takeoff and landing. I have validly used that exemption while climbing to the required altitude. The breeding area happens to be seasonal, which also doesn’t matter since it’s 1) not on the chart as such, and 2) again, pilots are only “requested” to avoid it.

The Flight

I’ve overlaid the flight path on a terminal area chart (using skyVector.com) and satellite map, plus made the track red for better contrast. Images are high-rez so you can open them up and zoom in. But there’s not much to look at. He launched and landed from a wide-open area, flew over open terrain and landed near where he launched–a long way from the park. We don’t know about permission but that’s not what the citation is about so it’s irrelevant to the case. It’s the the kind of launch area many of us have used when traveling. I’ve personally flown in this area at least twice. At least once I flew up over the lake with a local pilot.

Maricopa County Charge

The pilot is charged with violating a Maricopa County park rule R-116 prohibiting flying aircraft in the park. It’s a ridiculous charge given that he’s flying “in” the park in the say way that an airplane flying overhead is flying “in” the park, especially considering that he launched well outside its boundaries. Let alone the fact that the FAA controls airspace. These battles have always been lost by the local law enforcement people when challenged but it still costs money to defend.

Here’s where that authority exists:

49 U.S. Code § 40103.Sovereignty and use of airspace
 (a)Sovereignty and Public Right of Transit.—
  (1)The United States Government has exclusive sovereignty of airspace of the United States.
  (2)A citizen of the United States has a public right of transit through the navigable airspace. To further that right…

The max penalty is a $1500 fine and 4 months in jail so the pilot wisely pleaded “not guilty.” The case is ongoing as of 2020-Oct-19.

Why We Want Federal Oversight of Airspace

How would you know if you’re over a park? That’s the big reason. Airplanes, and even paramotors go over terrain on direct routes and shouldn’t have to be paying attention local park or city boundaries.

Of course if we push it, we’ll start to see laws on height above the ground added, which for us COULD be a travesty. Lets fly quietly.

Humans Living Together

This ticket appears to be entirely invalid because the federal government regulates airspace and he did not launch from within the park. Flying over the park? If I fly my 737 over that park, can they violate me? Should I expect a ticket? We as a community should fight such overreach tenaciously and vilify officials who would try to exceed their authority.

But…

We must also acknowledge our desire for quiet spaces and the reasonable expectation of park-goers for a minimal noise environment. Laws reflect our collective attempt to define the line between your rights and mine. Should it be OK for you to circle me at 10 feet while I’m trying to enjoy the park? Most reasonable people would say “no.” Where does my right to a reasonably quiet park experience end, and your right to fly your things over the park begin? That’s not a factor here because he wasn’t cited for noise, but you can see where it could underpin a more reasonable law.

What if the pilot was down near a beach or boat and buzzing around at 20 feet? Sympathy would rightfully go down, but if we’re to be a nation of laws, we have to ask: “what law did he violate?” And if the answer is “At that point he was flying in the park” — a reasonable answer — then we ought to define it in more detail. No wonder law books get so big.

No matter the if’s, citing someone for rules that don’t apply is an ugly development whenever it happens, and this is no exception.

We as paramotor pilots must be careful when exercising our freedoms. And we must keep government bodies from overstepping their bounds as this case sure seems to show. We don’t live in China. Freedom of action must be defended when it gets challenged by those who think they can operate with impunity.

It’s also incumbent on us to not fly in a manner that irritates our fellow humans. They will enact laws. And launch sites will vanish. If there’s a charted area with minimums, comply, even if they’re “requested.” If we know of a sensitive area, stay away, etc. Violate the 2000′ request enough and it will be made a law.

Here’s to a good outcome in this case.

Notes for Reference

A side note for reference. Airplane pilots (not ultralighters) adhere to FAR part 91. An advisory circular offers guidance (non-regulatory) for AIRPLANE pilots, search “FAA Advisory Circular AC 91-36, Visual Flight Rules (VFR) Flight Over Noise-Sensitive Areas”. I’m not bothering with a link because the location changes regularly. It’s basically suggesting to remain at least 2000 feet above any place that could be sensitive to annoying noises. Experience sense suggests that if you’re cruising a quiet paramotor more than 500′ people can barely here you. If you’re flying a louder machine, especially at full power, it may take 2000′ for the same quietness.

Another pertinent source is the Aeronautical Information Manual. Search for “Part 7-4-6: Flights Over Charted U.S. Wildlife Refuges, Parks, and Forest Service Areas.”

And lastly the “Aeronautical Chart User Guide” is a sectional chart legend on steroids. It describes more about wilderness area depictions on charts.