In the U.S., drone operations are often not generally allowed within five miles of an airport, and this can be the source of a lot frustration for some drone pilots.
For instance, if you’re flying in your own backyard as a hobbyist and you only plan to go ten feet in the air, why do you need to notify Air Traffic Control? Or if you’re flying a real estate mission four miles away from an airport, and don’t plan to fly much higher than the house you’re photographing, why do you need to go through the potentially lengthy process of securing airspace authorization?
If you’re a hobbyist, this scenario certainly does seem frustrating, but we’d recommend doing everything you can to be compliant. Right now there is an ongoing debate on whether hobbyists should be more strongly regulated, and given the relative lenience of existing regulations it seems like a good idea to comply, even if you’re just flying at your house.
And for commercial drone pilots, the FAA is working to speed up the process for airspace authorizations by rolling out instant airspace authorizations via LAANC throughout the U.S., so hopefully things should be much quicker within the next year.
So How Can Drone Pilots Fly Legally within Five Miles of an airport?
The first thing to clarify is that there are two different classes of rules in place for flying drones. One set of rules applies to hobbyist drone pilots, and another set of rules—the FAA’s Part 107 rules—applies to commercial drone pilots.
A hobbyist is someone who’s flying a drone just for fun, and a commercial drone pilot is someone flying for work or business purposes.
How Hobbyist Drone Pilots Can Fly within Five Miles of an Airport
As a hobbyist, the FAA’s guidelines read that you must, “Provide prior notification to the airport and air traffic control tower, if one is present, when flying within 5 miles of an airport.”
That’s it. You don’t need to submit any paperwork or wait for official approval from the FAA. So long as you contact the airport and air traffic control tower, you can fly within five miles of an airport.
But how exactly are you supposed to notify the airport and the control tower?
We know of two ways. One, you can call. Or two, you can use an app like AirMap to notify the airport digitally.
If you do decide to use an app instead of making a phone call, we recommend that you do your homework and confirm that the app is notifying both the airport and the tower—the information we’ve found indicates that the AirMap app notifies the airport manager, but it’s unclear whether the requirement to notify the tower is covered through that notification. Just something to look into, since the responsibility to provide those notifications is ultimately yours.
On the other hand, if you decide to call, this page on the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) website will allow you to search for the phone number of any airport in the U.S.
If you’re going the route of calling to notify the airport, keep in mind that you also need to call the air traffic control tower.
Air traffic control tower phone numbers aren’t usually available to the public, so you’ll probably need to contact the airport manager and ask, 1) If there is a control tower, and 2) What the phone number is.
This is something you can ask for when you make your first phone call to the airport.
How Commercial Drone Pilots Can Fly within Five Miles of an Airport
On the other hand, if you’re operating as a commercial drone pilot and you want to fly within five miles of an airport, you’re probably going to need to secure airspace authorization from the FAA.
We say probably because it’s not always the case that the five miles of airspace surrounding an airport is controlled.
So the first thing to do if you’re a commercial drone pilot who wants to fly within five miles of an airport is to identify the class of airspace where you’d like to fly—there are several airports that exist in Class G uncontrolled airspace, so it’s important to do your research.
If you discover that the airspace where you want to fly is controlled, then you’ll need to secure airspace authorization to fly there.
There are two ways to receive airspace authorization. The first way, which could take up to 90 days but is available for all controlled airspace within five miles of any airport in the U.S., is to go to the FAADroneZone and submit an application.
Check out our step-by-step guide for help with the airspace authorization application process, and filling out the form on the DroneZone site.
The second way to get airspace authorization is to use a platform like AirMap or Skyward, which will allow you to get instant airspace authorization through the FAA’s Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability, or LAANC for short.
The only catch is that these instant authorizations are still being rolled out, and are currently only available in a handful of locations—you can find the list of places that currently have instant airspace authorization available here.
Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that even in Class G airspace, you’re not allowed to impede or interfere with any existing manned aircraft operations.
So even if you might have an airspace authorization that allows you to fly very close to an airport, or you might be a hobbyist who feels like you’ve done your duty and notified the airport, you still need to make sure to use common sense and stay out of the way of all manned aircraft.