Flying “low and slow” seems to be increasingly popular lately, so to help keep your scenic flight safe and legal, refamiliarize yourself with FAR 91.119.
FAR 91.119 prescribes four important altitude minimums, except for when necessary for takeoff or landing. Specifically, over a “congested area,” an aircraft may not be operated at less than 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal radius of 2,000 feet of the aircraft. FAR 91.119(b). Over an “other than congested area,” an aircraft may not be operated at less than 500 feet above the surface. FAR 91.119(c). Over “open water” or a “sparsely populated area,” an aircraft may not be operated closer than 500 feet from any person, vessel, vehicle, or structure. FAR 91.119(c). A pilot must always maintain a sufficient altitude to avoid undue hazard to persons or property on the surface in the event of an emergency landing. FAR 91.119(a). Helicopters, powered parachutes, and weight-shift-control aircraft may deviate from certain minimum altitudes if the operation can be conducted without hazard to persons or property on the surface. FAR 91.119(d).
Avoid the common mistake of assuming a “congested area” is depicted on a sectional chart as the yellow area outlining cities and towns. Even the FAA can’t tell you exactly what constitutes a “congested area,” “other than congested area,” “open water,” or “sparsely populated area.” These terms are neither defined, nor readily determinable by a formula. Rather, the FAA utilizes a case-by-case approach, considering all the circumstances, to determine compliance with FAR 91.119. Precedent reveals that a “congested area” can include a small area with ten houses and a school, a university campus, a beach along a highway, or a camp with numerous people on the docks and children playing on the shore.
At the end of the day, it is the pilot in command’s responsibility to consider “all available information” to ensure compliance with the FARs. FAR 91.103.