The Eight Circuit Court of Appeals in Edwards v. Federal Aviation Administration recently held that “a licensed heliport is an airport”. Seems like a “no-brainer” to me, but the court did provide a fairly detailed analysis supporting its legal conclusion.
The case took place in Sturgis, North Dakota during the annual motorcycle rally. Mr. Edwards’ was displeased with a helicopter owners operation of sightseeing flights departing and returning across the street from Mr. Edwards’ store. The helicopter operator obtained both a “favorable airspace determination from the FAA, as well as an airport operating license from the South Dakota Aeronautics Commission.” Despite these approvals, Mr. Edwards believed the helicopter operations were unlawful and, in an attempt to “discourage” the flights, Mr. Edwards moored two large advertising balloons on his property.
FAA officials thereafter warned Mr. Edwards on numerous occasions that his balloons were illegal. Mr. Edwards eventually removed the balloons, but only after threatening to shoot the windows out of helicopters flying over his property and having to explain that comment to an FBI agent. As you might expect, the FAA was not pleased. The FAA sought, and the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) ordered, a $5,000.00 civil penalty against Mr. Edwards for his operation of the moored balloons in a manner that created a hazard and within five miles of an airport.
In affirming the ALJ’s finding that the heliport was an airport within the meaning of 14 C.F.R. – 1.1, the Court granted substantial deference to the FAA’s interpretation of the FAR’s and found that the ALJ’s determination was reasonable “given the evidence that the site was being used regularly for the take-off and landing of helicopters, with FAA and state approval.” The Court noted, that “[t]he FAA, using clear and reasonable language, defined ‘airport’, for the purpose of FAA safety regulations, as the place where a helicopter goes up and comes down.”
However, it is unclear just how much weight the Court granted to the fact that the helicopter operator had obtained FAA and Aeronautics approvals. Without these approvals, it seems to me that this case could be construed more broadly than it should be to argue that any place a helicopter goes up and then comes down is a heliport. I don’t think this was the Court’s intention, but without further clarification of the Court’s reliance upon the approvals, such a broad interpretation could easily be argued. It will be interesting to see how/whether this case is used/cited in the future.