Superheroes and Flying I: Air Safety and Registration

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there are approximately 7,000 aircraft in the air over the continental US at any given time. That looks something like this. Congress has claimed sovereignty over U.S. airspace and has given authority to the Administrator of 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.

So what does this mean for our flying superheroes?

I. Safety

Let’s start with a purely practical question: is it at all safe to have flying superheroes? Ignoring for the moment whether it is safe for the superheroes themselves (given what they’re usually up to when flying, the answer seems to be “obviously not,” but that’s their own business), is it safe to have people like Superman, Iron Man, Batman, or the X-Men just jetting around willy-nilly?

Assuming that our heroes are not terribly likely to crash absent the malicious activity of a supervillain, which the stories suggest is generally the case, then the answer is a qualified “Probably.” Seven thousand aircraft seems like a lot, but that works out to 0.002 aircraft/sq. mile in the lower forty-eight. Add to that the fact that airspace is a volume, not a flat surface, and the odds of actually coming anywhere near another aircraft are pretty damn low. Even allowing for crowded airspace around the major urban areas where most superheroes tend to operate, the airspace still isn’t exactly crowded.

As it is, air travel is remarkably safe. “General aviation,” i.e. aircraft operated by people other than commercial airlines, is about an order of magnitude more dangerous than commercial airline travel, and even there we’re talking about less than two fatalities per 100,000 hours of travel. Commercial airline accidents are measured in terms of accidents per million hours. In both cases, the vast majority of accidents involve either 1) taking off/landing, or 2) hitting the ground. Actual collisions between aircraft in the air are really, really uncommon, particularly outside the immediate environs of an airport. So having a couple of guys flying around on their own, even without the assistance of air traffic control, doesn’t seem like it would significantly impact air transit safety, especially if our heroes don’t do this.

II. Registration

Safety issues aside, there are significant legal issues for flying superheroes. Air transportation is one of the most highly regulated activities out there–nuclear energy and nursing homes are even more tightly regulated, but not much else would probably qualify–and it starts with the fundamentals: all “aircraft,” defined in 49 U.S.C. § 40102(a)(6) as “any contrivance invented, used, or designed to navigate, or fly in, the air,” must be registered under 49 U.S.C. § 44103 before it may be operated.

A key word here is “contrivance.” Superman and several other characters don’t need any sort of contrivance to fly. They can simply do it. It seems pretty clear that this type of character would be entirely exempt from FAA registration requirements–if not FAA jurisdiction entirely–because it does not involve the use of an “aircraft,” and federal aviation statutes and regulation are largely targeted, not at flying as such, but at the operation of aircraft. Though the thought of a federal inspector attempting to certify Superman’s “airworthiness” is rather amusing.  So as it stands, the law probably does not apply to superheroes who can fly under their own power, such as Superman, but superheroes who rely on flying suits or more traditional aircraft would fall under the law.

So as soon as Tony Stark leaves the ground in the Iron Man suit, he’s in violation of federal law unless he has registered it with the FAA. Same goes for Bruce Wayne and the Batcopter, the X-Men and the Blackbird, etc. In order to be registered, an aircraft must meet FAA airworthiness standards, set forth in 14 C.F.R. §§ 21-39. The engine requirements alone include several dozen sub-sections. And while it seems likely that any craft operated by a superhero would probably pass with flying colors, getting that certified by the FAA probably means letting someone inspect it. Which makes keeping it a secret pretty difficult.

Note that while the FAA does have much-reduced regulations for certain classes of aircraft (particularly the ultralight class), few if any flying superheroes would qualify.  For one thing, an ultralight is limited to flight over unpopulated areas and a top speed of just 55 knots (64 mph), which would be of limited use when fighting crime, to say the least.

There is another way of getting your plane legal: the military also has jurisdiction over US airspace, and military aircraft are not subject to the FAA’s jurisdiction. Not registration, not airworthiness, not flight plans, nothing. Of course, only military aircraft and military personnel fall under the military’s jurisdiction, and the vast majority of our heroes seem to be civilians. Even those with official government contacts, e.g. the Avengers, seem to act as civilians at least part of the time. Besides, it is vanishingly unlikely that the military would agree to extend its aviation jurisdiction to protect aircraft it does not actually control, especially if said aircraft involve technology to which the military does not have access. If anything, the “benefits” of military aviation jurisdiction might be a bargaining chip the Pentagon could use to encourage superheroes to share their toys.

III. Conclusion

Flying superheroes do not seem to pose any inherent risk to air transport, as airspace represents a massive volume, the vast majority of which is empty at any given time. As superhero characters can be presumed to use adequate caution when flying or operating their aircraft–they’re the good guys after all–the odds of an incident endangering another aircraft are actually pretty minimal. That aside however, there are significant legal problems in operating aircraft outside the legal system, registration being the first of them, though characters that can fly without the assistance of mechanical devices are probably okay on that front.

Up next in this series: flight plans and more!

31 responses to “Superheroes and Flying I: Air Safety and Registration

  1. While the volume of “airspace” is huge, airplanes do not fly through that volume randomly. There’s a huge difference between Superman flying over midtown Metropolis, and Superman flying right into the glide slope of the active runway at Metropolis International at the same altitude. While we can assume that superheroes would exercise due care, with the sheer volume of superheroics in the multiverse this may prove to be an issue, since one presumes that superheroes (other than Iron Man, perhaps) would not show up on radar.

    I could imagine the FAA at least recommending that flying superheroes be fitted with transponders of some kind, to assist air traffic control in routing around them in the event of emergency superheroics in close proximity to an airport.

  2. There’s an even more troubling category of “contrivance” for flight – items which allow the wearer to fly through magic or super-science and do not resemble 21st century vehicles. Things like Thor’s hammer, Hawkman’s wings, or Booster Gold’s purloined Flight Ring (or for that matter, a Green Lantern ring.)

    Then there’s Wonder Woman’s Invisble Jet, which seems to fall in between the two types of contrivance.

    • Christopher L. Bennett

      I gather that Thor’s hammer (in the original conception, at least) isn’t really a flying device; he simply throws it really hard and gets pulled along with it (which violates Newtonian physics, but hey, it’s magic). So if he’s technically on a ballistic trajectory, would that exempt him from FAA regulations? What’s the policy for things like human cannonballs, catapults, etc.?

      • Christopher A.

        Thor’s hammer flight, while implausible, doesn’t violate the laws of physics. It is just an indirect variant of leaping. When he throws the hammer forward, the equal and opposite reaction is his legs pushing down against the ground with enormous force. The Earth goes one way, Thor goes the other. Just like the Hulk leaping.

        I shouldn’t think human catapults would count. But what about firing unmanned rockets – does the FAA control that? What about launching weather balloons?

  3. For reference purposes re: the likes of the Northern Guard, Captain Canuck, Alpha Flight and its offshoots, and assorted other Canadian-themed/based characters, I’d suggest visiting Nav Canada.

  4. There have been some heroes, and villians, who out of laziness or just because they can, have hitched rides on jets.

    • Yeah, sometimes they just don’t have time to use a jet or something. Or, someone like Spider-Man, really can’t afford another method of travel.

      • As such, that a) be a form of theft (not paying for airfare) and b) a hazard because of the reduction of aerodynamics of said jet if they hitched the ride on the outside?

  5. Assuming most superheroes are active at low altitude over urban centres, the big danger would be to traffic and emergency helicopters and other low-flying aircraft. Depending on location there may well be lots of extra rules for that sort of flying; for example, I’m pretty sure that the rules for London only allow multiple-engine aircraft.

  6. Outfitting heroes that can fly naturally with transponders of some kind or requiring them to register with the FAA might lead to trampling of civil liberties or issues like superhero/mutant registration. Where would the line be drawn?

    • Agree,
      Also the idea for having a transponder I suppose is for localization, for the aircrafts to account for them (superheroes) or vice-versa. And then:
      1. In the case of Superman: being able to fly at very high speeds the aircrafts won’t have time to account for him. So this just leaves it to Superman to avoid a collision. Defeats the purpose.
      2. Superman has a secret Identity: Clark Kent. When flying “home” to be Clark Kent what he should do? Turn off the device? … and when.

  7. I wrote an article similar to this last year (Superhero Vehicles – “Chicks Love the Car” Its an interesting thought that self-powered, flight heroes may be exempt from registration. I have been working on redrafting existing laws and regulations to account for superheroes, this may be an area worth visiting.

  8. While most aircraft operated by superheroes would probably not cause a risk, there still is Wonder Woman’s invisible plane to consider.

    • Christopher L. Bennett

      Indeed. I assume an invisible plane would not be fitted with running lights, which would kind of defeat the purpose of invisibility.

      Then again, considering that you can actually see Wonder Woman when she’s inside the plane — i.e. it’s actually a transparent plane rather than an invisible one — the purpose of invisibility is already defeated.

      • Given that the F-117, the B-2, and the F-22 all have running lights I don’t see why it wouldn’t have them. They’d just be turned off when trying to be stealthy.

  9. When it comes to certifying the flightworthiness of superheros like Superman, I would expect one of two outcomes:

    “You’re Superman, right?” “Right”
    “You’re certified.”

    or something along the lines of the OHSA “vacuum pockets” incident.

  10. Let’s go one step further, how about the Transformers? Many of them to transform into some form of plane/jet/helicopter or fly under their own power. Just like the Chakat stated, who’s going to up to Starscream and tell him if he’s flight worthy or not? Or even Optimus Prime?

  11. I think the general principles regulating flight would have to be analogous, or perhaps modeled on, those of ocean going vessels. People swim in the same seas as motorboats, use rowboats in the same waters as QEII, and so forth. Commercial trade on the seas is regulated, but not always. Sometimes rogue ships violate territorial limits, and sometimes guys on their boats are just fishing for fun and oblivious to the law.
    There are airborne analogies to all these cases. Nations would ignore the little guys, go after major players who cause problems, and the first time Green Goblin gets sucked into a jet intake, the public outcry would make Superman want to walk across America instead of flying.

  12. Iron Man’s actually in pretty good shape. It’s no mystery who built the suit and Stark probably wouldn’t have to give up proprietary details concerning how repulsor rays are generated. He could just show his capabilities and be certified as an an ultra-light and maybe more. And the armor might even have a flight transpondeer. Avenger’s quinjets are just souped up private planes with well known owners as well.

    By contrast that invisible jet was a problem, but after all Wonder Woman was committing espionage (an agent of a foreign power masquerading as an American military officer in order to covertly gather intelligence) so having an unlicensed aircraft is the least of her issues.

  13. What about characters that shoot high-powered laser beams? These are clearly a problem if aimed above the horizon, and are regulated by the FAA and the Laser Clearinghouse (part of the DoD – I don’t know exact status) in the US.

  14. I would think that almost all super hero flight machines would qualify as “Experimental — Amateur Built”. As such they can be certified without showing airworthiness in anything more than a practical sense. For example, to use an uncertified engine, you just have to fly around for 40 hours before you can flu over cities.

    In particular, you do NOT have to disclose technology.

    • Are there not still limits on things like size, speed, cargo capacity, and weapons, though?

      • Weapons would probably be seperate from FAA, there’s a big difference between say legsally flying a restored Lancaster bomber and loading it with 5 tons of bombs and 2000 .50 cal machine gun rounds.

        Speed might be an issue, as supersonic flight is generally not allowed over populated areas.

      • I’m not 100% sure, but I think it is illegal for civilian aircraft to be armed. For instance, people who have restored P-51 Mustangs don’t have real .50cal machine guns in the wings. That or they aren’t allowed to have live ammunition, one of the two.

  15. I am curious on how the FAA would treat flight rings (future technology allowing the user to fly, used by Booster Gold as the only one in our time period) as well as power rings that allowed flight (Green Lantern, as well as the various other color corps, not only a flight contrivance, but also a weapon)

    • The GL power rings have the capability to act as transponders, implement radio commincations, collision avoidance, etc. I doubt the writers have thought of it, but a real test pilot would have. The Green Lantern Corps are an intergalactic organization, which Earth’s governments probably have no formal relations with, so the President, State Department, or Congress is going to have to make a policy decision, or just let it slide.

      The Yellow and Red Lantern Corps are basically super-villain organizations, on a good day they’d tell the FAA to go jump in a blast furnace.

      Futuristic flight rings? The future society they come from would have had to deal with flight safety issues too, and probably much more crowded skies, so I’d speculate that they have safety features already built into them, like transponders, collision avoidance, etc. And Booster Gold is already a member of an organization with flying members in it.

      About the X-Men: in the original continuity it was revealed that the X-Men had a sub rosa liaison with the US government, before they started having their own aircraft, so I imagine that their aircraft have transponders and some FAA protocol, the FAA may think the X-Men’s blackbird is a US military aircraft. After all the retcon’s, no idea. In their very early days, the X-Men traveled in their secret Ids.

      • Aaand now I’m imagining fighters being scrambled when something unidentified enters airspace around DC or something and pulling up alongside Dex-Starr. Thanks for that, I needed a good laugh.

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