Vail waits to regulate drone use

The west wasn’t flown with a registered drone

The Federal Aviation Administration currently requires owners to register new drones that weigh more than a half-pound. To learn more, go to

VAIL — It’s still OK to fly a drone or remote-control airplane over Vail, but that could change as the evolution continues with technology, and government’s perceived need to regulate it.

Vail Town Attorney Matt Mire was asked several weeks ago to draft an ordinance regulating drones in the skies above town property. That ordinance was shelved Tuesday, but plenty of questions remain.

Mire told council members that regulations continue to evolve at a federal level, so anything the town does now might quickly become obsolete. But, Mire said, the town should still consider regulations for town property.

The concern, in part, is drone use over town parks. Some commercially available drones can weigh 50 pounds or more. That’s a big thing to fall out of the sky if a pilot loses control.

The idea, still, is to allow drone use over town property only with the permission of the town manager.

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On the other hand, Mire told council members that the Vail Police Department hasn’t yet taken any complaints of hazardous, annoying or otherwise improper drone use in town.

But drones and remote-control airplanes do attract attention.

Flying at Bighorn

Speaking to the council Tuesday, Avon resident Andrew Teichman brought in his remote-control airplane, an electric-powered float plane with a wingspan of about 6 feet.

Teichman told the council he sometimes flies at Bighorn Park in East Vail, where he’ll land and take off from the pond there.

“I get overwhelmingly positive responses,” Teichman said, adding that his remote-control plane is especially popular with youngsters, adding that the aircraft seem to spark interest in science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM fields.

Teichman said he socializes with a small group of hobbyists, often at a small field near Wolcott. That group hosts a kids’ activity tent at the Wheels & Wings event at the Eagle County Regional Airport, held in September.

But operating near an airport has its complications.

Teichman said federal regulations prohibit remote-control aircraft use within a five-mile radius of airports unless the aircraft operator has permission and contact with the control tower.

This can lead to problems.

Eagle County Aviation Director Greg Phillips said a drone user at the 2015 Wheels & Wings event was reminded about the airport rule, but wasn’t cited.

Phillips acknowledged that the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates the nation’s airspace, is unlikely to go looking for backyard or over-the-park drone users in Eagle and Gypsum. Still, he said, there’s the real potential for safety problems between drones and piloted aircraft.

Safety first

A commercial airliner flying recently into London’s Heathrow Airport was struck by a drone. The aircraft wasn’t damaged, but the potential was there.

In 2009, U.S. Airways Flight 1549 was brought down into New York’s Hudson River when the plane flew through a flock of birds, damaging the plane’s engines. A 50-pound drone sucked into the engine of an airliner could do similar damage, or worse, Phillips said.

Like Vail, Phillips said there haven’t been problems with drone operations near the airport. And that’s the way he wants to keep it.

“We want to make sure our aircraft operating here are as safe as possible,” Phillips said.

That includes the military helicopters flying into and out of the Colorado National Guard’s High Altitude Aviation Training Site. There, military helicopter pilots from around the world learn about flying in mountainous terrain.

The site stays busy — with numerous flights throughout the year. Helicopters fly into and out of the airport, of course, but most aircraft from the training site do most of their training in remote areas — primarily managed by either the U.S. Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service. The Forest Service has its own rules regarding drone use, especially for commercial purposes. And the Vail and Beaver Creek ski areas ban the aircraft there.

While Vail doesn’t have an airport, it does have a helipad. Air ambulances use that facility an average of 75. That isn’t a controlled airport, and Vail officials believe the five-mile rule at airports doesn’t apply to the helipad since it isn’t managed by any air traffic control facility.

But any new technology comes with people who misuse it.

Vail officials don’t seem in any rush to regulate much farther than drone use over town property. Even in that case, council members said they believe more research is needed about what kind of regulations the town might need.

“I think there’s a frenzy (about drones) in the media that’s going to blow past,” Teichman said. “In its wake there will be some changes.”

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, and @scottnmiller.

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