Low flying has a forbidden attraction all its own. Every pilot who has ever done it secretly agrees that whistling along at 20 feet above the ground, pumped by the sensation of pure speed, is so much fun that it has to be illegal in at least a dozen states. Virtually every pilot tries it. Most survive. Yet, every year some find out that it’s only possible to tie the record for the lowest flight.
We’ve all read and sort of absorbed the minimum altitude numbers in FAR 91.119 and generally know that we’re supposed to stay 500 feet above the ground and 1,000 feet above congested areas. However, the regulation is a little more complex than those basic numbers.
The problem is “congested area.” Rather than publish a definition so pilots can know how to shape their aeronautical behavior the FAA purposefully doesn’t—it comes up with its definition on a case by case basis. The FAA says it does that so it can balance the pilot’s interests with the need to protect persons and property. In enforcement actions, the FAA has successfully declared that a congested area includes a group of people on an airport ramp, sunbathers on a beach, a small subdivision covering less than a quarter mile and traffic on an Interstate highway.
If there is a group of people on the ramp watching airplanes, the FAA has considered that group to make the area “congested.” That triggers the clearance distances of FAR 91.119(b). If the pilot is within 2,000 feet horizontally, he or she must be flying 1,000 feet above the highest obstruction unless it’s necessary for taking off or landing. The FAA has long held that a low pass is not necessary for taking off or landing (and if the gear and flaps were up on final, the FAA has taken the position that the pilot wasn’t approaching to land and then executed a go-around). So, if a group of people is hanging around the ramp at a fly in and you want to make a low pass down the runway, make sure the runway is more than 2,000 feet away—although you may still be subject to the 500-foot minimum altitude regulation. Even if no one is around and the runway area is considered sparsely populated so the only minimum altitude is high enough to land safely if the engine quits, you still have to be more than 500 feet horizontally from vehicles and structures—including an airplane parked near the runway.
Today, everyone has a cellphone camera, and those images will be used against you if you are charged with illegal low flying. In addition, the FAA will subpoena your GPS data and use it.
Know before you decide to make a low pass that the distances in the FARs include horizontal clearance as well vertical; a certain percentage of the population doesn’t like low flying and will call the FAA and technology will trump your claim that you were planning to land but made a go around.
Know before you decide to make a low pass that the distances in the regulation include horizontal clearance as well vertical; a certain percentage of the population doesn’t like low flying and will call the FAA, and technology will trump your claim that you were planning to land but made a go around.