Drones and Model Airplanes



Who Controls and Enforces How Aircraft and Drones Operate in the Airspace Above Lake Tahoe? (PDF)

The City of South Lake Tahoe supports the safe operation of drones for recreational use and commercial purposes. Coordination is a MUST!! There are many areas around the airport that are NOT SAFE to fly drones because manned aircraft will be at low altitudes.

Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) 
Do you own or operate a model airplane? A drone? A quadcopter? All of these are considered UAS and flying them is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).



Regulation of drones in the hands of civilian pilots took a big step forward on December 14, 2015. The Federal Aviation Administration announced that all units weighing between 0.55 pounds and 55 pounds must be registered by February 19th, 2016 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Anyone caught flying without proper registration after that date could face stiff penalties. The FAA says civil penalties include a fine of up to $27,500. Criminal penalties include a fine of up to $250,000 and up to three years in jail.

UAS come in a variety of shapes and sizes and serve diverse purposes. Regardless of size, the responsibility to fly safely applies equally to manned and unmanned aircraft operations.

Currently, small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) may be operated for hobby and recreational purposes under specific safety guidelines as established by Congress. Small UAS flown for recreational purposes are typically known as model aircraft and weigh less than 55 lbs.

The recreational use of sUAS is the operation of an unmanned aircraft for personal interests and enjoyment. For example, using a sUAS to take photographs for your own personal use would be considered recreational; using the same device to take photographs or videos for compensation or sale to another individual would be considered a commercial operation and fall under a separate set of regulations. You should check with the FAA for further determination as to what constitutes commercial or other non-hobby, non-recreational sUAS operations.

Model Aircraft

Under the Special Rule for Model Aircraft (PDF), recreational UAS must be operated in accordance with several requirements, including a community-based set of safety guidelines and within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization such as the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) (PDF). Operators not operating within the safety program of a community-based organization should follow the FAA’s guidance at Know Before You Fly.

Safety Guidelines

The FAA has partnered with several industry associations to promote Know Before You Fly, a campaign to educate the public about using unmanned aircraft safely and responsibly. Individuals flying for hobby or recreation are strongly encouraged to follow safety guidelines, which include: As a general rule these are the “big” federal guidelines for drone use:

  1. Fly at or below 400 feet and stay away from surrounding obstacles
  2. Keep your UAS within sight
  3. Never fly near other aircraft, especially near airports
  4. Never fly over groups of people
  5. Never fly over stadiums or sports events
  6. Never fly near emergency response efforts such as fires
  7. Never fly under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  8. Understand airspace restrictions and requirements


FAA UAS Task Force:

Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI):

FAA and Partners Education Campaign

FAA Unmanned Aircraft Systems

FAA Videos on YouTube

Academy of Model Aeronautics

Academy of Model Aeronautics National Model Aircraft Safety Code (PDF)

FAA 333 Exemption Guidance

FAA Drone Task Force on Registration Report

Airport Cooperative Research Program (ACRP) Publications, Report 144, Unmanned Aircraft Systems at Airports (PDF)

For the public to file a complaint about illegal drone activities with the Federal Aviation Administration use this link: File Drone Report

All drones between 0.55 lbs and 55 lbs must register with the Federal Aviation Administration use this link: Drone Registration Form

Tons of your questions are answered in this FAA FAQ

Current Laws Governing the Operation of UAS by the Federal Government: Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Regulations & Policies


Red areas indicate state parks & wilderness; orange areas indicate Class E airspace

  • California State Parks: Edwin Natural Preserve, Emerald Bay State Park, D.L. Bliss State Park, Ward Creek State Park, Burton Creek State Park, Sugar Pine Point State Park
  • Nevada State Parks: Lake Tahoe State Park (Sand Harbor, Spooner, Cave Rock) & Van Sickle Bi-State Park
  • Wilderness Areas: Desolation, Granite Chief, Mt Rose, Mokelumne, Carson-Iceberg
  • Airports: Lake Tahoe Airport & Truckee-Tahoe Airport Class E SFC areas

  • California State Parks: Edwin Natural Preserve, Emerald Bay State Park, D.L. Bliss State Park, Ward Creek State Park, Burton Creek State Park, Sugar Pine Point State Park
  • Nevada State Parks: Lake Tahoe State Park (Sand Harbor, Spooner, Cave Rock)
  • Van Sickle Bi-State Park
  • Wilderness Areas: Desolation, Granite Chief, Mt Rose, Mokelumne, Carson-Iceberg
  • Airports: Lake Tahoe Airport & Truckee-Tahoe Airport Class E SFC areas

California State Parks – PROHIBITED

As of publication, the California State Parks website says that recreational drones are allowed in California State Parks except where posted. This is not entirely accurate.

Recreational drone flying is illegal in all California State Parks, classified as a dangerous recreational activity under California Code of Regulations Title 14, Section 4319. The chief ranger for the Lake Tahoe sector was also recently quoted in the news stating that they’re prohibited here.

Locations where you may not fly your drone in Lake Tahoe California State Parks include:

  • Emerald Bay State Park
  • D.L. Bliss State Park
  • Sugar Pine Point State Park
  • Burton Creek State Park
  • Kings Beach State Recreation Area

Lake Valley State Recreation Area and Washoe Meadows State Park also lie within the Lake Tahoe Airport Class E Surface area where flights can be restricted by the Lake Tahoe Airport.

Nevada State Parks – PROHIBITED

Nevada’s official policy does not allow any recreational drone flying from Nevada state parks. Lake Tahoe State Park includes:

  • Sand Harbor
  • Cave Rock
  • Spooner Lake
  • Marlette Lake
  • Tunnel Creek & The Flume Trail
  • All shoreline from the Ponderosa to Bonsai Rock (Bonsai Rock does lie just outside of the boundary)

Wilderness Areas – PROHIBITED

The Wilderness Act (PDF) prohibits motorized vehicles in congressionally-designated wilderness areas. This includes aircraft/drones.

Wilderness included in this restriction in the Tahoe area:

  • Mount Rose Wilderness
  • Mokelumne Wilderness
  • Carson-Iceberg Wilderness
  • Desolation Wilderness
  • Granite Chief Wilderness

National Forest – ALLOWED (But prohibited in Wilderness)

There are currently no restrictions for flying in strictly National Forest land, unless of course it’s a wilderness area. National Forest land makes up the majority of land around Lake Tahoe.

Municipal areas – ALLOWED

No towns in the Lake Tahoe area outright prohibit drone flying yet. However, some of these areas fall within airport Class E Surface areas.

Please respect the privacy of others. In California, for example, you can be prosecuted for flying over someone else’s backyard.

Best practices for flying in populated areas:

  • Always fly over “public” land, not private homes or businesses
  • Do not fly directly over people
  • Always keep your drone in sight


Lake Tahoe airport in South Lake Tahoe and Truckee-Tahoe airport in Truckee have Class E Surface areas that overlap their respective towns.

  • Hobbyist flyers: you must notify airport management before you fly in this area. They reserve the right to tell you that you can’t fly.
  • Part 107 flyers: you must get an airspace authorization from the FAA before flying in these areas. You can only do this from the FAA sUAS web portal.

Source: Where You Can Fly a Drone in Lake Tahoe: Downloadable Map 

Who Controls and Enforces How Aircraft and Drones Operate in the Airspace Above Lake Tahoe?

The United States Government has exclusive sovereignty over airspace of the United States pursuant to 49 U.S.C.A. § 40103. The airspace, therefore, is not subject to private ownership nor can the flight of an aircraft within the navigable airspace of the United States constitute a trespass. Unmanned aircraft are aircraft consistent with Subtitle B of Public Law 112-95 and the existing definition of aircraft in Title 49 of the United States Code, 49 U.S.C. 40102. 

U.S. Congress has vested the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) with authority to regulate the areas of airspace use, management and efficiency, air traffic control, safety, navigational facilities, and aircraft noise at its source. 49 U.S.C. §§ 40103, 44502, and 44701-44735. Congress has directed the FAA to “develop plans and policy for the use of the navigable airspace and assign by regulation or order the use of the airspace necessary to ensure the safety of aircraft and the efficient use of airspace.” 49 U.S.C. § 40103(b)(1). Congress has further directed the FAA to “prescribe air traffic regulations on the flight of aircraft (including regulations on safe altitudes)” for navigating, protecting, and identifying aircraft; protecting individuals and property on the ground; using the navigable airspace efficiently; and preventing collision between aircraft, between aircraft and land or water vehicles, and between aircraft and airborne objects. 49 U.S.C. § 40103(b)(2).

A consistent regulatory system for aircraft and use of airspace has the broader effect of ensuring the highest level of safety for all aviation operations. To ensure the maintenance of a safe and sound air transportation system and of navigable airspace free from inconsistent restrictions,

FAA has regulatory authority over matters pertaining to aviation safety.

Substantial air safety issues are raised when state or local governments attempt to regulate the operation or flight of aircraft. If one or two municipalities enacted ordinances regulating aircraft in the navigable airspace and a significant number of municipalities followed suit, fractionalized control of the navigable airspace could result. In turn, this ‘patchwork quilt’ of differing restrictions could severely limit the flexibility of FAA in controlling the airspace and flight patterns, and ensuring safety and an efficient air traffic flow. A navigable airspace free from inconsistent state and local restrictions is essential to the maintenance of a safe and sound air transportation system. See Montalvo v. Spirit Airlines, 508 F.3d 464 (9th Cir. 2007), and French v. Pan Am Express, Inc., 869 F.2d 1 (1st Cir. 1989); see also Arizona v. U.S., 567 U.S. ___, 132 S.Ct. 2492, 2502 (2012) (“Where Congress occupies an entire field . . . even complimentary state regulation is impermissible. Field preemption reflects a congressional decision to foreclose any state regulation in the area, even if it is parallel to federal standards.”), and Morales v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 504 U.S. 374, 386-87 (1992).

The federal government has exclusive sovereignty of U.S. airspace. Congress delegated to the FAA the ability to define “navigable airspace” and the authority to regulate “navigable airspace” of aircraft by regulation or order. 49 U.S.C. § 40103(b)(1). While it is clear that navigable airspace falls under the purview of the FAA, the boundaries of that airspace remain unclear.

According to Federal Aviation Regulations, “navigable airspace” is defined as “airspace at and above the minimum flight altitudes prescribed by or under this chapter, including airspace needed for safe takeoff and landing.” 14 C.F.R. § 1.1. For airplanes, the minimum flight altitude while flying over congested areas or open air assemblies of persons is 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal radius of 2,000 feet. 14 C.F.R. § 91.119(b).

Over uncongested areas, airplanes can operate at an altitude of 500 feet above the surface. However, airplanes can operate even lower when over “open water or sparsely populated areas.” When flying over those areas, aircraft may not operate closer than 500 feet to any person, vehicle, or structure provided that if the airplane’s engines fail, an emergency landing will not create an undue hazard. 14 C.F.R. § 91.119(a) and (c). Two exceptions exist for when a person may operate an aircraft below these altitudes: (1) when necessary for takeoff or landing; or (2) in an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action. 14 C.F.R. § 91.119(a); 14 C.F.R. § 91.3(b).

Minimum safe altitudes for helicopters differ from other aircraft. Specifically, “If the operation is conducted without hazard to persons or property on the surface . . . . A helicopter may be operated at less than the minimums prescribed [for fixed wing aircraft], provided each person operating the helicopter complies with any routes or altitudes specifically prescribed for helicopters by the FAA.” 14 C.F.R. § 91.119(d)(1).

The Lake Tahoe Airport is located in Class “E” airspace and starts at the surface of the ground with an upper limit of 18,000 feet above mean sea level. The airspace resembles a “key hole” that encompasses almost all of the south shore. The control of aircraft in the Tahoe basin is completed by Oakland Center Air Route Traffic Control Center (ZOA).
Airspace over Lake Tahoe Basin and Immediate Environments
Federal Statute Granting Federal Aviation Administration Power to Enact and Enforce Rules Governing the Operation of Aircraft in Flight
49 U.S.C. §§ 40103, 44502, and 44701- 44735 (former Federal Aviation Act of 1958, as
amended and recodified).
Authorities Granted to the Federal Aviation Administration by Case Law
The U.S. Supreme Court
“Congress has recognized the national responsibility for regulating air commerce. Federal control is intensive and exclusive. Planes do not wander about in the sky like vagrant clouds. They move only by federal permission, subject to federal inspection, in the hands of federally certified personnel and under an intricate system of federal commands. The moment a ship taxies onto a runway it is caught up in an elaborate and detailed system of controls. It takes off only by instruction from the control tower, it travels on prescribed beams, it may be diverted from its intended landing, and it obeys signals and orders. Its privileges, rights, and protection, so far as transit is concerned, it owes to the Federal Government alone and not to any state government.” Northwest Airlines v. State of Minnesota, 322 U.S. 292, 303 (1944)(Jackson, R., concurring).
“If we were to uphold the Burbank ordinance [which placed an 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew on jet flights from the Burbank Airport] and a significant number of municipalities followed suit, it is obvious that fractionalized control of the timing of takeoffs and landings would severely limit the flexibility of FAA in controlling air traffic flow. The difficulties of scheduling flights to avoid congestion and the concomitant decrease in safety would be compounded.” Burbank v. Lockheed Air Terminal Inc., 411 U.S. 624, 639 (1973).
“The Federal Aviation Act requires a delicate balance between safety and efficiency, and the protection of persons on the ground … The interdependence of these factors requires a uniform and exclusive system of federal regulation if the congressional objectives underlying the Federal Aviation Act are to be fulfilled.” Burbank at 638-639.
“The paramount substantive concerns of Congress [in enacting the FAA Act] were to regulate federally all aspects of air safety … and, once aircraft were in ‘flight,’ airspace management…." Burbank at 644 (Rehnquist, J. dissenting). 
The U.S. Court of Appeals
“Air traffic must be regulated at the national level. Without uniform equipment specifications, takeoff and landing rules, and safety standards, it would be impossible to operate a national air transportation system.” Gustafson v. City of Lake Angeles, 76 F.3d 778, 792-793 (6th Cir. 1996) (Jones, N., concurring).
“The purpose, history, and language of the FAA [Act] lead us to conclude that Congress intended to have a single, uniform system for regulating aviation safety. The catalytic events leading to the enactment of the FAA [Act] helped generate this intent. The FAA [Act] was drafted in response to a series of fatal air crashes between civil and military aircraft operating under separate flight rules .… In discussing the impetus for the FAA [Act], the Supreme Court has also noted that regulating the aviation industry requires a delicate balance between safety and efficiency. It is precisely because of ‘the interdependence of these factors’ that Congress enacted ‘a uniform and exclusive system of federal regulation.’” Montalvo v. Spirit Airlines, 508 F.3d 464, 471 (9th Cir. 2007), citing City of Burbank v. Lockheed Air Terminal Inc., 411 U.S. 624, 638-39 (1973).
“[W]hen we look to the historical impetus for the FAA, its legislative history, and the language of the [FAA] Act, it is clear that Congress intended to invest the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration with the authority to enact exclusive air safety standards. Moreover, the Administrator has chosen to exercise this authority by issuing such pervasive regulations that we can infer a preemptive intent to displace all state law on the subject of air safety.” Montalvo at 472.
“We similarly hold that federal law occupies the entire field of aviation safety. Congress' intent to displace state law is implicit in the pervasiveness of the federal regulations, the dominance of the federal interest in this area, and the legislative goal of establishing a single, uniform system of control over air safety. This holding is fully consistent with our decision in Sky sign International, Inc. v. Honolulu, 276 F.3d 1109 (9th Cir. 2002), where we considered whether federal law preempted state regulation of aerial advertising that was distracting and potentially dangerous to persons on the ground. In upholding the state regulations, we held that federal law has not ‘preempt[ed] altogether any state regulation purporting to reach into the navigable airspace.’ While Congress may not have acted to occupy exclusively all of air commerce, it has clearly indicated its intent to be the sole regulator of aviation safety. The FAA, together with federal air safety regulations, establish complete and thorough safety standards for interstate and international air transportation that are not subject to supplementation by, or variation among, states.” Montalvo at 473-474.
“[W]e remark the Supreme Court's reasoning regarding the need for uniformity [concerning] the regulation of aviation noise, see City of Burbank v. Lockheed Air Terminal, 411 U.S. 624 (1973), and suggest that the same rationale applies here. In Burbank, the Court struck down a municipal anti-noise ordinance placing a curfew on jet flights from a regional airport. Citing the ‘pervasive nature of the scheme of federal regulation,’ the majority ruled that aircraft noise was wholly subject to federal hegemony, thereby preempting state or local enactments in the field. In our view, the pervasiveness of the federal web is as apparent in the matter of pilot qualification as in the matter of aircraft noise. If we upheld the Rhode Island statute as applied to airline pilots, ‘and a significant number of [states] followed suit, it is obvious that fractionalized control ... would severely limit the flexibility of the F.A.A ….’ [citing Burbank] Moreover, a patchwork of state laws in this airspace, some in conflict with each other, would create a crazy quilt effect …
The regulation of interstate flight-and flyers-must of necessity be monolithic. Its very nature permits no other conclusion. In the area of pilot fitness as in the area of aviation noise, the [FAA] Act as we read it ‘leave[s] no room for ... local controls.’ [citing Burbank]. French v. Pan Am Express, Inc., 869 F.2d 1, 6 (1st Cir. 1989).
Contact Information for Oakland Center, Air Traffic Control for Lake Tahoe
Watch Desk (24/7):
Operations Manager
510-745-3331 (24 hours/day—7 days/week)
Oakland ARTCC Domestic Airspace & Procedures
Support Manager
Jeff Hubert
Contact Information for Questions Regarding Federal Control of the National Airspace System in California & Nevada. 
Western-Pacific Region Office of the Regional Counsel
P.O. Box 92007 Los Angeles, CA 90009
Tel: (310) 725-7100 (Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada)

Contact Information for Filing a Complaint about a Pilot Flying an Aircraft/Drone in an Unsafe Manner 

 Reno Flight Standards District Office

5466 Longley Lane

Reno, Nevada 89511

Tel: (775) 858-7700

Fax: (775) 858-7737