Is a Certificate of Authorization (COA) the right way to work for your public safety department? Here Steve Rhode discusses when and why it may or may not be appropriate to work under a COA.
The following is part of a bi-weekly series on drone public safety issues by Steve Rhode, chief pilot of the Wake Forest Fire Department and the North Carolina Public Safety Drone Academy and founder of Public Safety Flight, a website that provides information on how to use drones unmanned Aircraft systems (UAS), UAVs, planes and drones in public safety. (Not intended as legal advice: see the FAA government website for details.)
The elusive COA beluga
Many public safety drone operations choose to fly under a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) to conduct flight operations for their government operations.
In my experience, many choose this route because a salesperson or friend said it was the easiest way to perform operations.
I was informed by a sheriff’s office why they went to the COA route to self-certify their pilots because they failed the Part 107 certificate exam.
Another office told me they went with the COA to avoid paying Part 107 test fees.
Those aren’t good reasons to fly under a COA. Not even close.
So let’s look at the facts
For flight operations under a COA, the agency must certify that the drones are airworthy. But how can they do that when the drones flying today do not have an airworthiness certificate?
In 2018 I wrote about many pitfalls in COA operations. These problems still exist today.
The issues of concern fall into two main categories:
The first problem is the lack of liability and responsibility for monitoring and compliance with flight rules and the awareness that the pilot, department, agency, county and state government have when running a COA program. Errors and problems that arise in a COA program open up almost unlimited liability for this chain of participants. The responsibility and obligation to comply with the flight rules does not expire when you certify yourself or work as a public aircraft in the NAS.
For example, if you operate a drone that has a history of failures, outliers, incidents, or accidents, read that your public safety drone may not be safe to fly and lawyers may only eat you for lunch.
This second area is the more problematic problem.
I am not sure if new COA operators of drones for public safety understand what they are reporting as those in charge of management.
The COA documents issued to the departments offer some guidance, but what they don’t say is often not understood by organizations flying under a COA, even though they are responsible for compliance with federal regulations.
Not every flight that a division could fly is a Public Aircraft Operation (PAO), which means that it is a civil flight regulated in Part 107 and that a COA does not apply. Unless the pilot is a Part 107 certified pilot, these civil flights are illegal flights and the operator is likely to be in violation of a number of 14 CFR Part 107 regulations.
Pilots under COAs have personal and full responsibility for all flights on which they are the Remote Pilot in Command. You and the responsible person bound by the COA may be held personally responsible for all enforcement and civil sanctions for their operations. While the COA agency assumes many of the FAA’s responsibilities for overseeing flight operations, they do not eliminate all civil law regulations or excuse non-compliance.
For example, CFR 91.3 and 91.13 are the major pitfalls any pilot encounter when a problem, incident, or accident escalates
But that’s not even the main concern. It still seems almost impossible for an inexperienced flight operator to participate in a program that meets the requirements that are placed on them.
Larger government aviation programs that operate and fly PAO flights are on the wrong end of FAA action and NTSB ratings. In an accident report on a PAO flight, the NTSB said, “Since the aircraft was operated as a public aircraft operation, the Department of Interiors (DOI) training program was not subject to civil aircraft requirements. An NTSB review of the flight training program provided a general overview of the hourly requirements. The flight training program did not include curricula, events, or testing and review procedures. No written guide was developed for maneuvers and procedures with acceptable standards of performance, so there was no standardization within the pilot group, and tribal knowledge and experimentation were accepted as part of the corporate culture. There were multiple checklists for the aircraft and pilots were allowed to use whichever checklist they preferred. DOI was / was not required to incorporate best practices and industry standards into their training program and flight operations, and no FAA oversight was required or intended. “
In another case, the NTSB noted, “The investigation also found that the Alaska DPS lacked organizational policies and procedures to ensure that operational risk was adequately managed both before and during the mission. These guidelines and procedures include formal minimum meteorological requirements for pilots, pre-flight risk assessment forms, and a secondary assessment by another qualified person trained in helicopter operations. These risk management strategies could have encouraged the pilot to take action to mitigate weather-related risks, refuse the mission, or stay on the ground after rescuing the snowmobile driver in the helicopter. The investigation also found that the Alaska DPS had no support for a tactical flight officer program, resulting in a lack of a trained observer on the day of the accident to help mitigate the risk. “
While the above NTSB report mentions helicopters. The FAA regards helicopters and drones as airplanes.
What am i worried?
As part of the COA, the department faces what manned pilots call a ramp check. You will receive a surprise visit from an FAA representative on the ramp at the airport.
Look at your Certificate of Authenticity and see if you have a similar language to yours. “During the time this Certificate of Authenticity is approved and active, a site security assessment / visit may be conducted to ensure compliance with the COA.”
Some recent FAA crash investigations of a public entity revealed massive numbers of violations or non-compliant operations in COA public safety programs. It happens, but no one wants to raise their hand and talk about getting caught by the FAA.
Steve Rhode is an FAA Certified Commercial and Instrument Certified Airplane Pilot, an Experienced Part 107 UAS Commercial Pilot, and Chief Pilot of the Wake Forest Fire Department and the North Carolina Public Safety Drone Academy. He advises drone pilots through the Homeland Security Information Network and as a drone expert on the FAA Safety Team. Steve is the founder of Public Safety Flight, a website that contains news, honest information, tips, and stories about unmanned aerial vehicle systems (UAS), UAVs, aircraft, and drones in fire departments and other public safety niches. Sign up for the Public Safety Flight newsletter to add to Steve’s personal email list or contact Steve here. On the plane, his FAA callsign is Fire Demon 1: and Firebird 1 with the drone.