What are aerobatics, and when do I need a parachute?

A recent magazine article on the subject of aerobatic flight got me to thinking about what the regulations actually say. While looking for information, I ran across a recent (2012) legal opinion from an FAA counsel that left me more confused than enlightened.

Citabria in roll
Do you have to wear that parachute?

The opinion concerned spin training. When discussing spin training, there are two regulations involved: Section 91.303 (Aerobatic Flight) and Section 91.307 (Parachutes and parachuting).

To avoid convoluted thought processes, it is important to realize that these are separate regs. Apparently this is difficult for some pilots – and also for some whom I have met in the FAA, including the FAA legal staff.

FAR 91.303 defines aerobatic flight and describes locations where aerobatic flight is prohibited. The definition of aerobatic flight is in an unnumbered paragraph after paragraph (f).

For the purposes of this section, aerobatic flight means an intentional maneuver involving an abrupt change in an aircraft’s attitude, an abnormal attitude, or abnormal acceleration not necessary for normal flight.

Note: there is no mention of any angular limit.

There are prohibitions associated with aerobatic flight.  As defined in Section 91.303 they are:

(a) over any congested area of a city, town, or settlement;

(b) over an open assembly of persons;

(c) within the lateral boundaries of the surface area of Class B, Class C, Class D, or Class E airspace designated for an airport;

(d) within 4 nautical miles of the centerline of any Federal airway;

(e) below an altitude of 1,500 above the surface, or

(f) when the flight visibility is less than 3 statute miles.

According to the FAA legal opinion dated September 28, 2012:

Pilots who wish to practice aerobatic flight maneuvers but cannot meet the requirements of 91.303 must obtain a waiver from the specific paragraph 91.303 requirement. This waiver permits the aerobatic flight in in a designated area referred to as an aerobatic practice area or aerobatic box.

Spin from cockpit
It’s a spin, but is it aerobatics?

My experience is that an aerobatic box is needed to obtain waivers of some regulations: usually speed or altitude, not airspace.

What the legal counsel does not mention is that aerobatic flight is permitted in all airspace not prohibited in paragraph 91.303. This leaves Class G and Class E not designated for an airport.

Section 91.307 defines, among other things, when parachutes must be worn. The relevant section for this discussion is Paragraph:

(c) Unless each occupant of the aircraft is wearing an approved parachute, no pilot of a civil aircraft carrying any person (other than a crew member) may execute any intentional maneuver that exceeds-

(1) a bank of 60 degrees relative to the horizon; or

(2) a nose up or down attitude of 30 degrees relative to the horizon.

Note: there is no mention of aerobatic flight.

91.307 continues:

(d) Paragraph (c) of this section does not apply to—

(1) Flight tests for pilot certification or rating; or

(2) Spins and other flight maneuvers required by the regulations for any certificate or rating when given by-

(i) a certificated flight instructor; or

(ii) an airline transport pilot instructing in accordance with Paragraph 61.67 of this chapter.

This should take care of the need for using a parachute when giving spin training for a certification or rating.

One paragraph in the FAA legal interpretation letter says:

Spin training typically is conducted under three scenarios: (1) to meet the requirements for the issuance of an initial CFI certificate; (2) in conjunction with unusual upset instruction; and (3) in conjunction with aerobatic instruction.  The first two scenarios typically are not considered aerobatic flight maneuvers because spin training maneuvers, in these circumstances, do not require the use of a parachute and are required by regulation for and ratings to simulate recovery procedures.

With reference to (2) above and (d) of 91.307, I am unable to locate any rating or certificate that requires “unusual upset training.”

Citabria loop
Nobody wants to do this in Class B airspace.

Paragraph 91.307 (d) does not say that spin training is not an aerobatic maneuver; it merely states that a parachute need not be worn. So now that we have got that pesky parachute business out of the way, what else does our legal eagle have in store for us?

I quote: “Accordingly, provided no additional aerobatic flight maneuvers are performed, spin training to meet the requirements of a CFI certificate or associated with upset recovery training are not considered aerobatic maneuvers, and the requirements of paragraph 91.303 do not apply.”

As I read the opinion, all of the above prohibitions (congested areas, Class B/C/D airspace, etc.) do not apply to spin training to meet the requirements of a CFI certificate or to upset recovery training.

I personally find this interpretation bizarre to say the least. And all because of an inability to read the regulations.

I know of no one who wishes to conduct spin training in Class B airspace, or of any of the prohibitions listed in 14 CFR paragraph 91.303.  If the desire is to conduct spin training without using parachutes, that is already allowed by 14 CFR paragraph 91.307.

Also, as I read the regulations, if you conduct upset training, you will undoubtedly exceed the attitude limits in paragraph 91.307 and will require parachutes unless a legal opinion can be obtained stating that both occupants are required crew members.

To sum up: the FAA definition of aerobatics and the FAA requirements for wearing parachutes are two separate subject regulations. I’ll leave to the readers to explain the near universal desire to incorrectly combine these regulations and why there has been no comment on an interpretation that allows aerobatic flight in locations that should not be allowed.

3 Comments

  • I wore a chute when taking an aerobatic course at a university and also when I flew a competition sailplane, both of which seemed logical. What didn’t seem logical was that the first time I was going to use either of the chutes was going to be in an emergency.

    So, while working for the Soaring Society of America, I arranged to take sky diving lessons (not the tandem type which wasn’t “in” at the time and I am not sure even available) for myself and to write an article for our magazine “Soaring” from the viewpoint of a very reluctant student who thought it would be smart to do anyway. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen due to some odd circumstances to do with weather and a flooded airport at Lake Elsinore.

  • I suspect the big problems with FAA counsel opinions are that a) the lawyers aren’t pilots; b) they have multiple lawyers who can give conflicting opinions; none of the lawyers have read the entire FARs; and d) could it be they WANT the opinions to be opaque, so they can interpret them anyway they want when they’re in “gotcha” mode?

  • The confusing aspect of these FARs is not an issue for me; frankly, I don’t care. I think anyone performing aerobatics–and I certainly view spins as aerobatic maneuvers–WITHOUT wearing a parachute, knowing how to use it properly from parachute preflight through landing (trees, water, powerlines, high winds, etc.), and being mentally prepared to leave the “perfectly good airplane” when the fit hits the shan, is making a big mistake. I’ve worn one of my emergency rigs while flying basic aerobatics; while towing gliders in Pawnees and Super Cubs; while soaring; and on cross-country flights in airplanes. With 200 jumps logged, I KNOW I would not hesitate to leave an airplane that had suffered serious structural damage, jammed controls, an inflight fire that could not be contained, or other situation that left me otherwise without good options. Wearing a parachute is no guarantee of survival; I’ve known a number of superb pilots, including former FAA Administrator Don Engen, who didn’t get out of the aircraft while having a parachute strapped on. On the other hand, I’ve known pilots who might have lived if they had been wearing a parachute, but weren’t, so didn’t.

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