How The FAA Learned To Love Ryan Felner

Ryan Felner has many interests.

Ryan Felner

The Staples High School sophomore is on the tennis team. He’s taking AP courses. He loves photography, and making and editing videos. For the past 2 years, he’s developed websites for family and friends.

A year and a half ago — when the price of drones dropped and the market soared — Ryan started researching options. His parents agreed to fund half a DJI drone. He agreed to work, and pay back his half.

He followed Federal Aviation Administration rules, registering his drone as a Small Unmanned Aircraft System. He agreed to fly below 400 feet; not fly within a 5-mile radius of any airport, and always keep his drone in sight.

Ryan started taking beautiful photos and creating gorgeous videos, including the beach and — during family sailing trips — the New England coast. (Click here to see his website.)

His photos of his own house — with Compo Beach and the Sound in the background — were fantastic. That gave him the idea to reach out to real estate brokers, offering to shoot for them (free at first).

Word got out. He spent most of last summer taking real estate photos.

Owenoke Park, from Ryan Felner’s drone.

The Norwalk Hour ran a big story — “Student’s Drone Photography Business Takes Off” — last October. He was thrilled…

…until later that night, when he saw the comments. The story had been picked up by drone enthusiast sites. People posted harsh messages, saying what Ryan did was illegal.

Apparently, the FAA had released new regulations a few weeks earlier. To “Fly for Work,” a drone operator had to possess a Remote Pilot Certificate, and be 16 years old.

There were a few supportive comments. Some people noted that — like many operators — Ryan probably did not know about the new rules.

But he was horrified. He woke his parents, who were upset they’d allowed the situation to happen.

The next day, things got worse.

Richard Aarons — a volunteer counselor with the FAA’s safety team — emailed him. He told Ryan to contact him ASAP — and warned him he could face huge fines.

Ryan panicked. He was scared about the money. He worried his reputation was ruined for life. He feared for college, and beyond.

His parents helped him respond. Ryan said he was devastated to be out of compliance with regulations. He promised to cease all commercial operations immediately, and said he’d wait until his 16th birthday to take his pilot’s exam and apply for a proper license.

Aarons’ response was fantastic. He told Ryan he completely understood what happened, and said he was now doing exactly the right thing.

Aarons forwarded the emails to Marilyn Pearson, an aviation safety inspector with the FAA Unmanned Aircraft System division. She’d been working hard to educate drone enthusiasts, while implementing the new regs. She too commended Ryan for the way he’d communicated with the authorities.

Ryan Felner with his drone, on Martha’s Vineyard.

As Ryan’s 16th birthday approached, he contacted Pearson and Aarons. Both offered to help, if there was something he didn’t understand as he studied for his FAA exam.

On Tuesday at Sikorsky Airport, Ryan passed his FAA Remote Pilot Knowledge test with a very high score of 87.

Two days later — yesterday — he turned 16.

And tomorrow at 12 noon, in the Westport Library’s McManus Room, Ryan will give a talk at the Maker Faire. His subject: “Adventures of a 16-Year-Old Drone Pilot.”

But wait! There’s more!

When Pearson heard about Ryan’s speech, she was so excited, she said she’d come down from Hartford for it.

So before his talk — at the 9:45 a.m. Maker Faire opening ceremony, in the Taylor parking lot — she will present him with his Remote Pilot Airman Certificate.

Ryan’s spirits are sure to be sky high.

Right up there with his drone. And the possibilities for his great, professional — and now completely legal — business.

16 responses to “How The FAA Learned To Love Ryan Felner

  1. Roberta Tager

    Keep up this WONDERFUL reporting. Awesome‼️

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Melissa Augeri

    One of many amazing stories about young Westporters that make me proud to live here…but I really enjoyed this story because it highlights a young man who had a passion, pursued it, figured out a way to help pay for it, made an innocent mistake and followed the proper path to fix it. You’ve set a great example for others Ryan. Congratulations.

  3. A great story with a happy ending! Ryan sounds like an amazing kid.

  4. Jaime Bairaktaris

    Breaking the mold and creating something beautiful – very cool!

  5. Eric William Buchroeder SHS '70

    Licenses: aka big government charging you for something you already know how to do. This is only the beginning Ryan you’d better hire a tax accountant and procure plenty of liability insurance.

  6. What strikes me is Ryan’s resilience as well as his persistence. Facing unexpected harsh criticism like that is a blow, but he found his path through it. I am thrilled that I’ll be there tomorrow at the opening ceremony to see his hard work and good values rewarded!

  7. Wow! Wonderful story, Dan! On So many levels. Congratulations to Ryan, and wishing you a very Happy Birthday!

  8. Delightful story, and as a provider of exquisite drone video footage to the real estate community, I will absolutely give him a paying job!! Get in touch with Homeward Bound Productions Ryan, and happy birthday SWEET 16.

  9. Jack Whittle

    Best post of the day right there

  10. Way to go – what a great story and a very persistent and talented drone pilot. :->

  11. Ryan what a fantastic story! I am sure you will go far in life, it sounds like you are on a good path.

  12. Mary Cookman Schmerker

    Way to go Aaron. Your future is bright and the sky is the limit, Well for now perhaps it is only 400 feet high but the future awaits with much promise.

    • Mary Cookman Schmerker

      OOPS! Can’t believe I made the mistake on Ryan’s name. So sorry Ryan.

  13. Robert A. Jacobs

    For me personally this is a heartwarming story. I am a private pilot battling with the FAA for the renewal of my medical certificate. The FAA has been arbitrary, difficult and in my view (and that of my doctor) unreasonable. I am awaiting the decision of a faceless administrator in my mailbox. The FAA Medical branch is notorious for making pilot lives miserable so it was wonderful to read about Aaron’s excellent experience.

  14. Fantastic story! Go Ryan!

  15. Dianne Trivers

    What a fabulous story about such an admirable, intelligent, passionate young man. When confronted with obstacles he was honest, apologetic, and proactive. Congratulations to him for his many successes at such a young age. Kudos to his parents who have many reasons to be extremely proud of him and of the job they did as his parents.