I practiced an engine out maneuver the other day. At 2,000 feet agl, I retarded the throttle from cruise power to idle to simulate an engine failure. I then began to search for a suitable landing field in the semi-rural area over which I was flying—not a congested area, in my opinion. I had two considerations in picking a field: I wanted to find an open field of adequate size with a clear approach roughly aligned into the wind and I also wanted to find a field away from persons, vehicles, or structures. The first consideration was reactive stemming from years of training. The second consideration was more defensive. I wanted to fly the emergency maneuver down close to the ground to simulate the real thing, but being ever mindful of the regulations, I didn’t want to bust minimum safe altitudes as prescribed in 14 CFR 91.119. In the end, I broke the approach off about 500 feet agl and climbed away. I chickened out. I didn’t feel assured that the field was clear of persons, vehicles, or structures. While there’s an exception in 14 CFR 91.119 that allows for operations below the minimums when necessary for takeoff or landing, the FAA might not accept that the practice maneuver over that field was necessary. So, if there was a farmer plowing the field and obscured by the tree line and he had a camera and…well, you get it.
This brings to mind an old case (circa 1993) where a pilot was cited for operating below minimum safe altitudes and for careless or reckless operation in connection with a low pass over a runway. The pilot, flying a Learjet, maintained that he was demonstrating a practice landing approach relying on the takeoff and landing exception of 14 CFR 91.119. The FAA issued an order of suspension and on appeal, the NTSB acknowledged that simulated landings at airports are indeed allowed, but ruled that the minimum safe altitude exception was inapplicable where an unsuitable landing site is used. In this case, the low pass was made over a gravel runway. The NTSB cited, as precedential, a previous case where they ruled against a pilot of a Lockheed Electra who flew a rejected landing approach to a 2,000-foot-long “grass-dirt-sod” airstrip. The NTSB’s decision stated in part “…that the respondent’s aircraft was not equipped for landings on gravel. It therefore follows that the runway was unsuitable for a landing by that aircraft. Consequently, we must find that the exception set forth in the prefatory clause of section 91.119 does not apply to respondent’s practice approach maneuver.”
It’s notable that if an actual emergency exists, pilots may deviate from any rule, including 14 CFR 91.119. I think everyone will agree that emergency maneuvering practice is good and necessary. And, of course, it naturally follows that we should always practice safely and compliantly.