Reno backcountry pilot Trent Palmer last week on YouTube shared the story of his pilot license suspension, making national aviation headlines. And no, he didn’t jump out of or intentionally crash his plane as some other pilots have recently done.
Palmer is a drone pilot and filmmaker, but also pilots a STOL Kitfox V in the backcountry and posts videos to YouTube of his travels.
He said the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) suspension of his license for 60 days came after two years of investigation and appeals and stems from an incident that occured Nov. 24, 2019.
Palmer was conducting an inspection pass over a friend’s home airstrip to determine if he could land at the site. Pilots will use an inspection pass to check runway conditions and ensure a safe landing. They’re usually conducted with multiple passes over the airstrip and high, medium and low levels before landing.
“I realized that I wasn’t really able to identify the touchdown point for that landing spot… I opted to move on,” Palmer said.
Palmer said several days later he was asked to come in and speak with FAA officials who said the friend’s neighbor had provided footage of his inspection pass obtained from a doorbell camera.
That meeting led to several more meetings that included the FAA’s legal team and Palmer’s attorney. His license was initially suspended for 210 days.
The FAA charged Palmer with operating his aircraft at an altitude that could create an undue hazard to persons or property; flying too close to people, vehicles and structures; and operating his aircraft in a careless or reckless manner.
Palmer said the key to the first two alleged violations is that they apply “except for in cases of takeoff and landing,” which he says he was conducting through the inspection. He argues that the FAA recommends inspection passes like he conducted in its guidebook for small aircraft pilots landing in off-airport locations.
“There’s a precedent set with this case should this decision be upheld that could be very bad to not only me and my future backcountry flying but to everyone else.”
He also said the third charge is often lobbed at pilots when other violations have been noted.
“After explaining our side of things, the FAA attorney replied with something along the lines of ‘Well that’s all good and well, but I don’t understand why that landing is necessary. I think we’re going to have to go to a hearing,’” Palmer said. “At this point it was clear the FAA attorney wasn’t going to work with us.”
It was more than a year before Palmer got his hearing, which he expected to last about three hours. Instead, he said, it lasted for five days.
Palmer said the administrative judge that ruled on the hearing upheld all of the FAA’s rulings on the violations, using the rationale that since Palmer didn’t land, his low pass over the airstrip doesn’t count as part of a takeoff or landing procedure. He also cited the lack of runway lights and a windsock in his ruling.
Several pilots associations, including the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association, have said the ruling could have negative impacts for many pilots conducting backcountry landings or evaluating off-airport locations to land.
Palmer said he is planning an additional appeal, not because of the suspension but because he is concerned his case will set a precedent for future cases against backcountry pilots.
“There would be external pressures making us change our aeronautical decision making…It would force us to land, even if we didn’t think it was safe, to try to avoid being violated,” he said. “There’s a precedent set with this case should this decision be upheld that could be very bad to not only me and my future backcountry flying but to everyone else.”