Low and fast – a bad combination

Some pilots know that I am opposed to the practice of low-altitude flying for thrill purposes. This includes buzzing airports, houses, friends etc. While researching for this article and a presentation I gave on the subject, I found that this subject is debated by others as well. One person I debated years ago said that this practice is “perfectly safe.” So let’s start the discussion there. Is low altitude flying, often called “maneuvering flight” by the NTSB, or sometimes called “buzzing,” or to borrow a term from the Navy, “flat hatting,” perfectly safe? If you think the practice is legal and safe – change my mind. Comment on this article.

The Navy banned low altitude flying or “flat hatting” decades ago because of the aircraft and aircrew losses they suffered. The Navy wisely enshrined its opposition to such flying in OPNAVINST 3710.7 under Part 5.5.1.6 titled Flat Hatting, which noted:

“Flat hatting or any maneuvers conducted at low altitude and/or a high rate of speed for thrill purposes over land or water are prohibited. Any acts conducted for thrill purposes are strictly prohibited.”

And added, “Pilots shall not perform or request clearance to perform unusual maneuvers within class B, C, or D airspace if such maneuvers are not essential to the performance of the flight. ATC personnel are not permitted to approve a pilot’s request or ask a pilot to perform such maneuvers. Unusual maneuvers include unnecessary low passes, unscheduled fly-bys, climbs at very steep angles, practice approaches to altitudes below specific minimums (unless a landing is to be made), or any so-called flat hatting wherein a flight is conducted at a low altitude and/or a high rate of speed for thrill purposes.”

Lancair
In a fast airplane, it’s tempting to fly low.

Even though the practice is banned, the Navy lost a T-45 and two pilots last year for this behavior. The Air Force lost two pilots on April 3, 2004, at Savannah, Georgia, in a T-6 Texan II for similar reasons.

The 2017 Nall Report issued by AOPA for data from 2014 reported 53 accidents (29 fatal) involving maneuvering flight. The report’s authors noted:

“The great majority of fixed-wing maneuvering accidents, whether losses of control or collisions with obstructions, are initiated at low altitude. Some occur in the traffic pattern, but many of the crashes following unintended stalls and nearly all collisions with power lines, broadcast towers, and ridgelines arise directly from the pilot’s decision to fly needlessly low in inappropriate locations, making spins unrecoverable and leaving the airplane vulnerable to obstacles that could easily have been overflown. Very often these sudden impacts are not survivable, so maneuvering accidents are consistently one of the two top causes of deaths in general aviation.”

The general aviation fleet has suffered more than a few of these kinds of accidents (usually fatal). Years ago a 15,000 hour, ATP-rated Lancair 360 pilot buzzed his own house in Placerville, California, after picking up his daughter from college. The pilot pitched up into a steep attitude, stalled the aircraft and crashed in his neighbor’s front yard. The NTSB database is filled with many stories like this.

Another pilot posted this on a blog:

“I posted a video of my Legacy and what you see is a ‘low approach’ directly over the runway a maneuver that is perfectly legal and safe [emphasis added]. Everybody I have met that has seen the video has enjoyed it. I’m sorry that some feel it demonstrates reckless behavior, I simply disagree. I built my airplane to enjoy and I’m proud of the video we shot. For those that may be unhappy with my video I’d rather you just appreciate it for what it is and go on your way without comment.”

Was he correct? Is it safe?

Low Cessna river
How low is too low? This definitely is.

Maybe a better question is, “What are the hazards of low altitude maneuvering flight and is the flight worth the risk?” As a former military bombardier/navigator, I can tell you Navy aircrews flew very low and very fast for a living, at night, in the mountains, before NVGs came along and sometimes in poor weather. We received extensive training and spent many hours practicing so we could do it as safely as possible. What were the hazards? Misjudgment of altitude and terrain, other aircraft, bird strikes, wires, towers, emergencies or abnormalities at low altitudes that distracted us from flying the jet, etc. In spite of the hours of training and practice, we lost many aircraft and aircrew to CFIT (controlled flight into terrain).

During my research on this topic, I read a report about an accident that occurred near Minneapolis, Minnesota, involving a Cessna 172 that hit a wire crossing the Mississippi River. The report includes a link to a video recorded by a witness on the ground. In this case the pilot was likely unaware of and did not see the wire in time to avoid it. That is one hazard of low altitude maneuvering flight. There are many more.

When I debated this topic with a group of pilots in our region, they opined that low altitude flying is legal. Is it? Check out these videos and ask yourself, “Is it legal?”

Consider the regulation that governs aircraft altitude during flight. 14 CFR §91.119 states:

Minimum safe altitudes: General.

Except when necessary for takeoff or landing, no person may operate an aircraft below the following altitudes:

(a) Anywhere. An altitude allowing, if a power unit fails, an emergency landing without undue hazard to persons or property on the surface.

(b) Over congested areas. Over any congested area of a city, town, or settlement, or over any open air assembly of persons, an altitude of 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal radius of 2,000 feet of the aircraft.

(c) Over other than congested areas. An altitude of 500 feet above the surface, except over open water or sparsely populated areas. In those cases, the aircraft may not be operated closer than 500 feet to any person, vessel, vehicle, or structure.

Open water
What is open water? There’s a specific definition.

So let’s break this regulation down. The first paragraph says “except when necessary for takeoff or landing no person may operate an aircraft below the following altitudes…” So unless you are truly taking off or landing, you cannot go below either 500 feet agl or 1000 feet agl, depending on the congested area portion of the rule. Clearly in the case described by the Legacy owner, he was not intending to take off or land. Just because there is a patch of concrete with numbers and a centerline does not give one authorization to play Maverick – but I’ll come back to that later.

The second paragraph says, “at least 1000 feet above the highest obstacle within 2000 feet of the aircraft when operating over congested areas of cities, towns, or settlements, or open air assemblies of persons” – pretty clear, right? What is an open air assembly of persons? How about a ball game, or county fair, or three people standing on the ramp?

The third paragraph causes some confusion and misunderstanding because of its construct, but let’s break it down. It is easy to understand if you divide the paragraph into its clauses or parts. The first clause is, “Over other than congested areas. An altitude of 500 feet above the surface.” This clause means you cannot go below 500 feet agl over other than congested areas – period.

The second part of this paragraph provides an exception when over open water and sparsely populated areas. It says “…except over open water or sparsely populated areas. In those cases, the aircraft may not be operated closer than 500 feet to any person, vessel, vehicle, or structure.” So over open water or sparsely populated areas you can go down to the surface. What is “open water?” Well, the FAA defines “open water” on the back of aeronautical charts. Basically it is off the east coast or west coast, over the Great Lakes and Great Salt Lake, as explained in the graphic.

NTSB doc
Some pilots have learned the hard way that there are rules about low flying – even at airports.

What is “sparsely populated”? Unfortunately the FAA does not define this term so we have to turn to NTSB administrative law judge rulings to see how the Federal government has interpreted this regulation. This website is instructive on these issues.

If you put 91.119 into the search parameters you can find lucky aviators who have been suspended for buzzing airports like the one below who was busted by our local FAA FSDO inspector for buzzing a nearby airport. The inspector was driving out to the airport and saw the infraction and so it began.

As I said earlier, this topic is not unique to one particular community of pilots. Check out this discussion on Van’s Air Force. Most pilots there are advocates for low altitude flying; some are not. I think most know it’s not legal, hence their comments. One interesting comment came from a wise CFI:

Interesting posts. Let’s see if I can summarize:

  • The rules are for everyone else, not me. 
  • I can do whatever I want, as long as I’m willing to lie about it.
  • If I do it at some other airport, it’s okay.
  • If someone reports me for doing something wrong, they’re the bad guy.
  • If no one sees me doing it, no problemo.
  • If I’m not sure it’s okay, I’ll do it anyway – easier to ask forgiveness rather than permission.

What happened to being a good neighbor? What happened to the rules? The more noise we make close to the ground and the more people we aggravate, the sooner we end up loosing [sic] our privilege of flight. Sometimes, even being “right” doesn’t matter. Have fun and fly safe. 

Terry, CFI

Like Terry CFI, I see some pilots believe their “right” to have fun in their airplane cannot be infringed by anyone. They mistakenly believe that the airspace belongs solely to them for their enjoyment. Some erroneously believe that they can see all traffic in the pattern all the time, know where all the hazards are, or believe that all towers and utility lines are charted on sectional charts (they are not). I wish I was omniscient like them. Some of this bad behavior is exacerbated by social media like YouTube where pilots are encouraged to post video of themselves doing stupid things in airplanes. These pilots don’t like to follow the regulations in the air and perhaps anywhere else.

The FAA has researched and commented on these poor pilot traits. The following is an excerpt from the FAA publication, Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge:

The FAA oversaw an extensive research study on the similarities and dissimilarities of accident-free pilots and those who were not. The project surveyed over 4,000 pilots, half of whom had “clean” records while the other half had been involved in an accident.

Five traits were discovered in pilots prone to having accidents. These pilots:

  • have disdain toward rules.
  • have very high correlation between accidents on their flying records and safety violations on their driving records.
  • frequently fall into the “thrill and adventure seeking” personality category.
  • are impulsive rather than methodical and disciplined, both in their information gathering and in the speed and selection of actions to be taken.
  • have a disregard for or tend to underutilize outside sources of information, including copilots, flight attendants, flight service personnel, flight instructors, and ATC.

As pilots we have a tremendous responsibility to our families, passengers, our community and to ourselves to set a high bar for safe operations. Set a good example for others to follow and stay safe!

65 Comments

  • Agreed on all points. Flying low is dangerous, and is one reason I quit a pipeline job (we had a waiver down to 200 feet) after getting too many close-up looks at the butt feathers of large birds. Not to mention the tendency to fixate on the ground and descend when circling a reportable incident.

    On that note, there are legitimate professional reasons to fly low and I found that there is a lack of information on how to do so safely. I had to rely on a handful of anecdotes from other pipeline pilots and my own helicopter experience.

  • Agreed x 100. Unless you are an airshow performer operating with a low-level waiver or a crop duster spraying a field, you have no business buzzing the airport, the ramp, the runway… or anything else for that matter. There is much truth in the old saying “the FARs are written in blood.”

    Unfortunately, we are preaching to the choir. The “watch this,” “it won’t happen to me,” and “the rules are just suggestions” crowd will continue to fly as they have done in the past, driving up insurance rates and creating more widows and orphans.

    Last summer after lesson, the student and I were putting the airplane away and some intrepid goggles and white scarf pilot buzzed the main runway, followed by a steep pull-up and climbing turn. My student asked “What was that!?” and my answer was “An excellent way to die.”

    It did offer a good object lesson regarding the hazardous attitudes, so there’s that. Come on folks, GA has an image problem anyway… or at least it does where I live. Let’s not contribute to the problem!

    The next time you line up for a low altitude high speed pass, remember that you AREN’T the late Bob Hoover. None of us are.

    • When I was learning to fly, I believe 500′ agl was the rule and that made me nervous! I see no reason for a GA pilot to do otherwise and feel it is “unsafe” to deliberately fly below that at high speed except, of course for take off and landings!
      Keep in mind that there are always exceptions to the “rules”!
      All in MHO!

  • I don’t agree with all of the points made nor the way it is written. You say “This clause means you cannot go below 500 feet agl over other than congested areas – period”, and then go right on to define the exceptions. If there are exceptions, it is not “period”. The whole point is that there are exceptions. So why the flippant tone?

    We all agree many people want to do stupid stuff in airplanes. However I object to the “those people” tone of the article. I do not think the pilot in the Lancair doing a low approach over an airport is in any way unique nor particularly reckless – perhaps he wasn’t aligned with the runway but I think there is a grass strip.

    I wouldn’t do any of the water-skiing tricks myself, but there were no passengers involved and everybody seems to be on board. If there was a mishap, does not look like anybody else would be endangered (other than perhaps any rescue crew).

    While it is not for me and I wouldn’t do it, I’m not sure I would encourage legislation or action against aviators that do what was in the video – it was over open water and sparse areas.

    I’d argue it is within the rules, and I wouldn’t change them nor encourage active persecution of a pilot in those situations.

    • Did you miss the part about within 500′ of any person, structure, or vehicle? That did not look like a 500′ rope behind the water ski videos, to me. Even still, that was stupid. A responsible pilot is FOCUSED on flying when low, not waving at friends and trying to line up a rope to a water skier. Distracted and low is one of the biggest killers of pilots and passengers. That is why what was shown in the videos is illegal, and should be. If you want to water ski, use a boat. If you want to water ski fast enough to kill yourself, get a really fast boat! Were those private lakes wholly owned by the people involved???
      I highly doubt it, so how many people did they piss off doing there stunts? It doesn’t matter if they were reported, or if no one was close enough to see the tail number. General Aviation is suffering enough and the public is ignorant; every time someone does something stupid in an airplane, legal or not, public perception is that more regulation is needed; apparently they are right, but I sure wish it wasn’t.

      • 18 months ago I started my flight training for my private rating. Just prior to solo I took off and was climbing to altitude when my CFI asked if he could take the plane . Though I was flying as trained I obviously said sure. I assumed he was going to show me something new.
        From 800 ft AGL just clear of the numbers we entered a steep descending left turn and buzzed a local business his girlfriend worked at a extremely low altitude . I estimate below 200 ft above the building . Being a new student pilot I assumed he knew what he was doing and actually thought it was pretty cool.
        Fortunately for me ,as I look back on it, we continued on our way to the training area away from the airport.
        I realized how dangerous it was even as a new student and shortly thereafter I changed instructors and never flew with this guy again .
        The FOB operator at the time watched us depart and was on the radio asking if we were ok as they believed we had gone down behind the tree line .
        Property owners complained to the airport about the incident but nobody got the tail number.
        When the CFI later realized I had a camera running he begged me not to post it online
        I’m pretty sure he realized it was not a good thing to do .
        Need I say more?
        I’ve applied that experience to my flying and some consider me a overly cautious pilot .
        I look at it this way.
        If I use good judgement at all times I live to fly another day . I don’t need to impress anyone.

        Gary

  • Jeff, Thanks for posting this article. I think a lot of pilots fly low for the adrenaline rush. And like other risky behaviors, if they get away with it dozens of times, they think that they can continue getting away with it and remain safe. Sadly, not only do they sometimes kill themselves, but also kill other innocent people. Here’s the accident report for an acquaintance of mine who was a retired airline captain. I’d seen him at a dinner just two weeks before and talked with him. Little did I know that he liked flying low and that he would not only kill himself, but also his 18-year old granddaughter, who was with him in the plane. I later asked a mutual acquaintance about the accident. I didn’t realize they’d known each other since there were in college together. She said, “He always liked chasing cows.” I hope this convinces some readers to stop engaging in these kinds of senseless, risky behaviors. https://app.ntsb.gov/pdfgenerator/ReportGeneratorFile.ashx?EventID=20141109X51608&AKey=1&RType=HTML&IType=FA

  • Jeff,

    Thanks for a very good post. I’d like to hear more about how you trained and prepared in the Navy for those low-level intrusion missions.

    You describe when it is legal to fly below 500 feet, but did not speak to when it makes sense. I’ll give an example. To escape 50 knot headwinds over New Mexico we once flew along a remote pipeline service road at 200 feet AGL for a hundred miles. The routing was creative, but it was safe and complied with regulations.

  • Perfect article! The numbers show so clearly how dangerous it is. I really hope at least some of the pilots who have this kind of attitude – and altitude – read it and change their minds.

  • There are many reasons why one might need to fly low to the ground across the country: Pipeline and powerline patrol, flight instruction, CAP search and rescue, banner towing pickup and release, fire fighting, government business, photo missions, medical evacuation, crop spraying, missions to dirt and gravel strips in the jungle or in Alaska where there may be no weather reporting… If you need to fly low, you fly low. Just be smart about it; know the risks and the dangers. Plan ahead for it. All those folks who say “nay” for any reason, and who fly just for fun anyway, then let them stay on the ground. They don’t NEED to be at any altitude. Anytime you leave the ground, no matter what altitude you’re planning to hold, you’re putting yourself at risk. My uncle, a long-time ag pilot, logged over 26,000 hours in his career – all but about two-hundred of them were below 300 feet in altitude. He did just fine. We used to fly light twins at and sometimes below 500 feet AGL over mountainous, lush forests – often under low overcast skies because we had to; the missions were essential, and there were no instrument approaches into any of these grass strips. We did what we had to do. But we were smart about it; we studied every aspect before hand. (We had great charts most pilots don’t have access to…). However, not all of us could, nor would do it. The ones who wouldn’t stayed on the ground or flew other missions. No big deal. That being said, I, personally, would not fly a single-engine GA airplane away from the vicinity of an airport any lower than a suitable altitude which would allow me to make it into someplace – a field – in case the engine quit. And I’ve had two of those…

  • I really get tired of the constant references to RV pilots being unsafe, as was alluded to here. It is disingenuous to state that most RV pilots are “advocates for low altitude flying”, and then cite a thread from 10 years ago that is referring ONLY to a pre-planned low pass over an uncontrolled field. Maybe you think that’s unsafe as well, but it is FAR different than the rest of the dangerous low altitude antics you are describing.

    The vast majority of RV pilots I know are extremely responsible and want nothing more than to make and keep a good name for themselves as a group. Why drag out an old and unfounded gripe just to score a cheap shot at a group you must not be very familiar with?

  • Chris,

    Many GA communities post similar comments as found in the cited RV forum. I am sure many RV pilots want to fly safely and as you can see in the post the safe pilots were in the minority. The online comments speak for themselves.

    Jeff

  • Jeff writes:
    >The online comments speak for themselves.

    I saw a pretty respectful discussion with diverse opinion and many anecdotes of things that can go wrong, not “safe pilots” in the minority. You didn’t post the numerous comments like this, an excerpt from “rv6ejguy”.

    >Use good judgment, follow the law, and be fair but firm when dealing with nonsense.

    which is the opinion of many (IME the majority) of RV pilots. Again I think the straw man “those bad reckless other people” nature of your airfacts article is jarring. We don’t need to encourage arbitrary enforcement of safe activities in aviation.

  • Good article and great comments. I believe one overshadowed point is trying to equate numbers of flying hours with competency (“Years ago a 15,000 hour, ATP-rated Lancair 360 pilot buzzed…”) since most of those hours would be high altitude autopilot with no correlation to maneuvering flight. I’ve flown many times at 600 to 800 knots (yup, 1.2 mach) at 100-300′ AGL, with 60-70 degree bank turns, but always in highly-controlled circumstances. When I learned to fly that way, I had to complete an EXTENSIVE ground AND flight training program called LASDT (low-altitude-step-down-training). Ground training covered reaction time, visual illusions/sun angle, distractions, study of previous accidents, how to CHUM your charts, where it was legal (VR/IR routes), human factors, and the list goes on and on. Formal flight training included several flights with instructor at 1000′ AGL followed by 500′ flights, on down to 100′ (most pilots in the squadron were limited to a 300′ AGL minimum for safety). And, we also had radar altimeters and low altitude alerts. Even then, I lost several very qualified friends who “tied the record for low-altitude flight”. There’s lots of things other than ground you can hit, like the Marine A-6 that severed a tram cable in Italy, 1998, killing all 20 on the tram (note: there are many new cell phone towers being erected every day that aren’t on any chart update lists).
    So, if you haven’t had extensive formal training and you fly low, you are asking for trouble. Even if you don’t get killed, you are shedding a bad light on general aviation, and, worse yet, encouraging even less skilled aviators to try maneuvers that they are definitely not qualified to perform.

  • “What is an open air assembly of persons? How about a ball game, or county fair, or three people standing on the ramp?”
    Because I now Fly Radio Control fixed wing Model Air Planes (yes what the FAA considers as Drone right along with Quad Copters). and we have/had air planes fly over are model field at low altitude. I contacted the Scottsdale AZ, FSDO about how the FAA defines ‘ open air assembly of persons ‘. I was told that they in their considered an ‘open air assembly of persons’ was Any thing from 33,000 people at a foot ball game to 2 persons on a blanket having a having a picnic.

    As far as low flying is concerned it is just STUPID. Take the rate of decent of a 172 when the fan stops is about 800’/Min. That’s just 37.5 seconds to find a safe place th land before impact. Way too little time to save your butt.

  • I don’t understand what makes a low pass over the airport different than a typical go-around, but I have watched enough videos of people dying while trying that to believe that it is!

  • I agree on your points about safety and dangerous pilots who think the regs are for others. Out of your video examples, they almost all gave me a sour taste. However, the video about Kevin Quinn’s world record hydroski, I have to point out, has definite training and real-world application.

    In the world of bush flying, pilots occasionally have to land on gravel strips with short short distances available. The water skiing shown here is done to lengthen the usable area of landing. Essentially, the pilot will water ski to slow down before actually reaching the gravel bar. Typically this is only done in short distances from what I understand, but can be extremely useful. A touch down on water has to take into account tire pressure and airspeed, and should only be done in tail wheel aircraft. It can, from what I’ve read, be logged as a touch and go. So while it is true that flying low is dangerous, in that one case it’s not ALWAYS stupid.

    Unfortunately, there’s not very much official information out there on how to do this safely, and the regs aren’t very clear on it either. Alaska flying has hazards that aren’t really unique, but they are found in greater frequency. This is one of those, I think.

  • In this article, it seems the only danger pointed out on a centerline, low-level pass down the runway, is the steep pull-up at the end of the pass — which of course is irresponsible and potentially fatal for all concerned, both in the aircraft and on the ground. However, where is the harm of simply doing a normal, textbook climb-out to pattern altitude?

    How often as pilots has the approach been too fast and we had to execute a go-around, flying runway centerline before climbing? Is that not fundamentally characteristic of a low pass?

    By the same token, a missed instrument approach always calls for flying the runway heading at minimums, before climbing. Again, a safe low pass—in IMC, I might add.

    What is the difference, therefore, of a runway centerline low pass, ending with a routine climb out? Is it the AGL altitude, the airspeed, or the rate of climb at which the pass is made? If so, it seems then, the exercise becomes subjective to the type of aircraft and conditions in which the pass is made.

  • I was also an A-6 B/N (Marine). We also flew 480 Kts below 500 AGL, but we were highly trained, practiced a lot, and knew our charts. Yet my community had a share of bird strikes, wire strikes and even CFIT. There are legitmate reasons for low altitude flight (pipeline, SAR, etc.). If you are a professional, you will train, practice and preflight your op area. If you want to do it for fun, you’re allowed to kill yourself. Just, please don’t hurt anyone else.

  • I am a new pilot and I fly really low all the time. I feel safer that way. Think about it, would you rather fall from 2000 feet, or from 200 feet? If something bad happens or my engine dies or my wing breaks in flight, I would rather fall from 200 feet. Duh.

    • Flying higher gives you more time to react in case of emergency. If your engine fails at 200’ you have seconds to find a landing spot. Much more time from 2000 feet.

    • If you fall from 200 feet AGL you can still die and be just as dead as when you fall from 2000 feet AGL . At 200 feet, if your engine quits or you have other mechanical problems that require a forced landing, you have about 15 seconds before you make ground contact, and have little or no choice about where that contact with the ground occurs. At 200 feet, if you lose control of the airplane, you don’t have sufficient altitude to regain control. An inadvertent stall at 200 feet has a very different outcome than an inadvertent stall at 2000 feet.

    • For context Dylan, is your low-level flying in … ultralights.
      (glassdogangle on youtube)

      PART 103—ULTRALIGHT VEHICLES
      §103.15 Operations over congested areas.
      No person may operate an ultralight vehicle over any congested area of a city, town, or settlement, or over any open air assembly of persons.
      §103.17 Operations in certain airspace.
      No person may operate an ultralight vehicle within Class A, Class B, Class C, or Class D airspace or within the lateral boundaries of the surface area of Class E airspace …
      §103.7 (b) operators of ultralight vehicles are not required to meet any aeronautical knowledge, age, or experience requirements to operate those vehicles or to have airman or medical certificates.

  • Every time you drive your car anywhere, you are flat-hatting.

    You’re at 0 AGL, going 50-80mph, with other vehicles coming directly at you and passing only feet away from you also going 50-80mph, separated by only a yellow line.

    I can’t think of anything more insane or F890ing dangerous.

    Only guess what, millions of people do it, non-stop, day after day, year after year, in traffic all over the world.

    Stop hating on low flyers. Just because you have no skillz and wreck, does not mean the rest of us do. Maybe you should of learned to fly in gliders first, and get your nose out of your cockpit and off your instrument panel and actually look where you are going.

  • As a relatively new pilot 45 years ago, I used to fly really low whenever I deemed it to be safe—the Adrenalin rush, even at Skylane speeds, was tremendous. But looking back, what I thought was safe then, I would not consider safe today. Fortunately I got over the “bold pilot” syndrome, which has allowed me to become an old pilot.

    Under appropriate circumstances, such as to check out a landing area in the back country or on water, I’ll drop down to a low enough altitude, but otherwise, it’s much safer to have enough time and room to maneuver if the engine quits—and I have been there.

    • I got my license in 1973, and was young, and engaged in the same behavior. Fortunately I survived that period of time, and like you, am an old pilot.
      A couple of years ago, while sightseeing, I had a engine failure in a forested area, and thankfully had enough altitude to find a suitable landing site and survive.

      Since you’ve also had an engine failure, we know just how interesting that can, or would be, at low altitude.

  • The first plane crash I ever saw was caused by low flying. A couple guys were buzzing the HS football stadium during a game. They caught the gear on a power line and drove the plane into the dirt, leaving the airplane perfectly vertical, with the tail stick straight up.

  • Yeah, skimming the water with your WHEEL plane is just stupid, have fun explaining that accident to your insurance adjuster, and by the way, thanks for driving up those insurance costs for the non stupid pilots.

  • I don’t think many people would disagree with the premise that flying low is more dangerous than flying higher. So the real question becomes should we as pilots and as a society accept risk taking to the point where it puts one’s life at risk, even when it is for no other purpose than personal thrill, pleasure or fame? Were the Wright brothers not pursuing flight for essentially these reasons? I do not believe that risk taking should put unwilling participants in harm’s way, but as soon as we regulate away risk taking, we limit the scope of human achievement.

  • Hi Jeff, good article: well-written and totally on point.

    I have lost quite a few folks over the years to their inflated view of their own abilities – flying into trees after a beat-up of an airstrip; flying into a hill in IMC; stall spin from low-level, landed inverted; and so on. In each case the ‘pilot’ thought that they were much more capable than they actually were. Each accident was avoidable and each accident left grieving families and friends behind. I have been to too many aviation funerals and I am sure many other old hands here will attest to having attended their fair share of these too.

    When I was instructing I would take advanced students to the low-flying area and descend to around 200ft AGL to show them how quickly things can develop at low altitude. All expressed a desire to return to and remain at altitude – the danger was immediately and instinctively obvious to them even though the pre-flight briefing explained that the low flying session would be conducted in a known and approved area, free from power lines, towers and other obstacles.

    I learned to fly in New Zealand, a small hilly country with frequent poor weather, and bad weather flying was part of my learning right from the start: how to safely fly when the WX left you with no other choice, so valley flying, low-level navigation and so on. But the first choice was the one that really mattered – “do I really need to start this flight at all?” The rest of that knowledge was only to be used when things changed rapidly while you were in-flight, which was often the case in a small country with what is effectively marine weather. This was precautionary low-level flying: part flaps, reduced airspeed, and not high-speed thrill-seeking.

    So what am I trying to say in all this? The closer that you get the the ground the better the chance that it will ‘arise and smite thee’. Leave the low level work to the pros: ag pilots and the military.

  • IS flying low unsafe? No.

    CAN flying low be unsafe? Absolutely!!!

    Like Eric P’s comments above, I’ve flown Mach speeds at 100′ AGL both day and night, but that was done after extensive training and in very controlled environments. Our currency for LAT (low altitude tactics) flight operations was good for only 30 days. If you lost currency, you had to re-fly a check flight with a LATI (low altitude tactics instructor) before you could go low again on your own.

    Bottom line, unless the flight is “mission essential”, you are properly trained, and you are current, you should not be flying low, other than for takeoffs and landings.

  • What about the training maneuver for teaching handling the transition to the landing flare where a CFI has the trainee fly straight and level down the length of a runway at relatively slow speed only several feet above the ground, then climb out. While I was not trained that way, I have read numerous posts from self-described CFIs to student pilots having issues with landings where the posting CFI recommended this maneuver. I seems to be routinely supported by other posters, as well.

    It is a low approach. Unlike a go-around or a missed instrument approach, there is no intent to land with this training maneuver. So it would seem to violate the cited regulations. And like any maneuvering low to the ground (including landing and taking off) it entails some higher degree of risk than if it is performed at altitude. But it is impossible to experience ground effect at altitude.

    Are all the posters who recommend this maneuver as an effective training tool wrong?

  • I have been flying for the past 61+ years, received my basic flight training in the USAF in 1957, have flown over 52 different aircraft and have always flown from pt. A to pt. B without any crashes, and my passengers have always been satisfied! The most important part of Aviation is “flying the aircraft within its designed envelope! This has nothing to do with how low or high you fly! I have a Commercial SEL, MEL, & Glider Commercial and have thoroughly enjoyed flying 50ft. off the ground or at 30,000ft. The main problem that Aviation faces is that there are inexperienced pilots that somehow think that they are invincible! But to state that flying low is in itself dangerous and should be punished, is a serious transgression coming from a inept mind-set! I would suggest that such a mind-set should read Books like the Biography of Charles Lindbergh or The Wright Brothers!

    • There you go, Ellis. Good points all the way around. Safety is a mindset. “How professional do I want to be right now?” is a question we all need to answer periodically as we fly along. Flying, low or high, or fast or slow is a serious business. One thing we need to remember: The faster you fly, the farther ahead of the airplane you need to be.

  • Having learned to fly in New Zealand where our terrain is varied and dangerous, my Instructor Mark Taylor went to great lengths to instill in my brain three very smart and useful pointers, “runway behind you, fuel in the ground and altitude above are no use after things go wrong”, some 35 years later I am still here to talk about it and enjoy aviation as he and many others intended. remember the lower you fly the less time you have to react.

  • Anyone who is of the opinion that low flying is safe should be able to point to statistics which indicate that there has never been an incident or accident resulting from such activities.

    I have conducted such activities many, many times in the past, but all such operations were conducted legally. (Ground attack operations; formation aerobatics, helicopter nap-of-the-earth flight)

    Such manoeuvers are inherently dangerous and any one who posits otherwise is clearly unaware of the pitfalls of doing so.

    Military pilots are highly trained individuals and yet, they and their aircraft still find the ground all too frequently. If these well trained aviators can come to grief during low level missions, what does it say about the low-time, inexperienced, ill-prepared pilot out for a thrill?

    ‘Tis a recipe for disaster.

    PS: Grant R: your instructor was right.

    My mantra was:

    Runway behind you, altitude above you, and gas in the ground are absolutely useless.

    To which I added another item: “…five seconds ago”

    PPS: regarding the water skiing video: “Water skiing” in a wheeled aircraft is like self abuse in a house of ill repute… (;>0)

  • For many years I flew low-level (<500 feet) for law enforcement and for the censusing of wildlife in North America and Africa. As a hobby, I frequently fly below 500 feet for oblique landscape photography in sparsely populated areas.

    I have never buzzed anyone, any house, any airport, any vehicle, etc. To do so below 500 feet would be illegal. I assiduously avoid people, vehicles, houses, barns, even herds of livestock by margins much greater than 500 feet or much greater than 1000 feet in the case of congested areas.

  • Jeff, your comments about RV pilots are a foul. Online forum comments are not representative of the over 10,000 Vans RV pilots in the world. Using one example from a forum shows a lack of statistical rigor, and perhaps some of your own personal bias.

  • This is a very good article.

    There is no defense to flying low, buzzing, or whatever we call it.
    There are always going to be people who’ve survived this reckless behavior
    and who will defend it.
    They will have thousands of hours, or just a few hours airtime.
    Just because they’ve been lucky, they’ll promote this type of flying.
    My pilots license is 46 years old, and I have a little less than 4000 hours, and I
    know reckless operations when I see them.
    And so does everyone else.

    • Terry, the best defense for flying low and fast I can think of is because one is on a mission which requires it. And those missions do exists in abundance… No one will ever be able to answer this question: “Low and fast flying, is it safe?” to EVERYONE else’s satisfaction; there will always be two camps. However, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do everything. If one cannot figure out and train in a fashion which leads him to the right (safest) way to fly low and fast, then I would say don’t do it. If one cannot approach the endeavour professionally, then stay away from it before you kill yourself – and possibly others.

  • I learned to fly at Ryan Field in Tucson, Arizona. My flight instructor was elderly and had flown with Orville an Wilbur on Huffman Prairie in Dayton, Ohio when the boys were doing their glider studies. We would leave Ryan at sunrise and head south towards Mexico. He would chop the engine (idle) at 12,000 feet and teach me how to glide with a windmilling propeller and show me what distances I could achieve, what would happen with stalling the aircraft, what max speed was safely attainable to get to the ground, and got me used to relative silence in front of me and to FLY the aircraft. We did close to the ground flying for him to show me how incredibly dangerous it can be…in the desert, flat land, no obstructions….and also how to land between the cacti. His emphasis was always altitude and airspeed. Low altitude and high airspeed are O.K. strafing German locomotives of ships in Truk lagoon…he would say…nothing more nothing less and I did not ask and he did offered no more information. Anyway…I’m NEVER close to the ground for any reason other than taking off going away….or landing coming close……..both when they should be happening.

  • Years ago while commanding an F4 squadron my boss the director of operations showed me a letter from a young lady living along side a published low level route. She described herself as “quite attractive and prone to garden topless.” She described her location in detail and how much she enjoyed our Phantom flybys (we’re cleared to 300’ AGL on this route Bd up to 480 TAS). He said, “ it’s a flak trap—destroy it.” In spite if strong temptation to validate the letter but I didn’t and destroyed her letter forthwith. But I still wonder.

  • I love that the Navy banned the practice, but their famed Blue Angles travel all over the country and fly million dollar aircraft in just such a fashion. They’ve lost a few pilots if I’m not mistaken. Oh, they’re trained professionals you say? I don’t care. Multi-million dollar fighter jets weren’t intended for the flying circus. And I don’t buy for a moment that the aerobatic display is important for inspiring others to join the armed forces. The military has struggled for years to fill its ranks in spite of aerial demos at local air shows. Of course flying low is dangerous. So is flying in IMC for many people. Hell, maneuvering to land is a death defying stunt for some. I cant remember the last time I saw a local news broadcast about the pilot that crashed because he was showing off. But ive seen plenty here in South Florida recently that resulted from bad weather, fuel starvation, or a VMC roll. The FAA still doesnt require all aircraft to have a two-way radio in some circumstances and its almost 2020. I think we are discussing this because the author couldn’t think of a more creative topic.

  • Saw a bumper sticker recently that reminded me of the point of this article:

    “All smokers quit sooner or later!”

    Pilots who engage in buzzing or whatever it’s called perhaps are not aware that the forces of nature patrol, defend and enforce the boundaries of good practice in aviation 24/7 and will, without remorse, apology or appeal, simply destroy errant aircraft and the occupants where and when those boundaries are violated.

  • Higher altitude equals greater safety. Rules or no rules. Period.

    Just because you drive a hot exotic sports car doesn’t mean you HAVE TO drive it to its max speed. That’s just stupid and arrogant.

    That being said, just because you can perform high speed flybys in an airplane doesn’t mean you HAVE TO. That’s just stupid and arrogant.

    Take it from an old not bold pilot— (68 years old and flying with no accidents or incidents for 49 years)

  • I, like you, got plenty of training and practice at this low and fast thing back when. The current FARs lay out some good parameters for people to keep living by. The next big thing to watch out for are all the you tubers showing themselves flying formation and yesterday I saw a couple try a formation landing.

  • Great post. Unfortunately the pilots that need to read this and change their ways will not read past the headlines. To bad, as reading the article just might save their life. Remember the old saying.. There are old pilots and there are bold pilots but there are no old bold pilots.

  • In the late 70’s I knew this young pilot who drove a sports car and just got his private licence. Many said he would kill himself in his car. He killed himself buzzing his friends cottage in a 150. In July 2018, a professional floatplane pilot buzzed a cottage, stalled and crashed in Lake Muskoka. And the list goes on. Needless low altitude flying. The reduced margin at low altitude, obstacles, down drafts, rising terrain, etc.., should be perfectly obvious. It is a wonder pilots still try this.

  • As long as the pilot doesn’t endanger, or annoy others, I say, leave us alone! I may eat it one day, but that’s my choice as long as I don’t harm another person or damage property. I often fly 200mph over water at 50ft. Never towards any property, and never risk another life doing it. I thank you for your service as an A6 pilot, and CFI. I envy you for your experience in the A6! But I don’t need others telling me how to live my life. And the rules are somewhat vague about open water… your interpretation.

    If I have an engine failure low over the water, I’ll be landing in the water. These folks at 2000 ft will be looking for land, a good chance of killing a bystander. Maybe somewhat of a reach for justification, but think about it. Above all else, I do not want to harm or kill anyone else!! That’s the important thing! And killing a bystander is the absolute worst and unthinkable for me and will do harm to all pilots.

    Yes, I am a thrill seeker and responsible at the same time. Live your own life and quit telling others what risks they’re allowed to take! We’re turning into a nation of safety cowards. Yes, be safe for other’s but let the folks that enjoy it be.

    I know most of the boaters enjoy watching a low flying plane over the water. People always wave and I’ll rock the wings for them. We both enjoy it! If you’re not comfortable, do not do it!!

  • Hi, any of you pilots seen the sailplane high speed/ low pass contest finishes or videos?
    One pass, sometimes two, with a careful exchange of energy/ altitude. The glider community has this same argument all the time too. The best article I read equated the maneuver to a 99.9 % safety value, meaning that one time out of a thousand someone makes a serious mistake or miss-read conditions. Still not the odds I would play with just for fun. CBU

  • After two near misses of deer crossing the runway on landing at my 3000′ grass strip, I advise everyone who lands here to do a cruise speed fly-by at 25 to 50 ft above the runway to scare away the critters. This has had very good results and I consider it a worthy safety procedure!

  • Buzzing should be permitted, as long as it is planned beforehand. Once you have a mechanism to allow professional advice from airspace overseers, you engage a structure that allows safe execution and still accommodates the need or desire to showoff. Unannounced buzzing invariably includes poor judgement, rule-breaking, and unnecessary risk.

  • There’s nothing dangerous about the low altitude high speed pass. It’s the yahoo pull up at the end that gets most practitioners of this art.

  • Very good read, thanks for your time putting this together. I have found that many people on the ground don’t like airplanes as much as we pilots do. When I landed at Sedona AZ I knew from reading reports that most people there don’t like airplanes in their quite life. So I asked at the FBO for advice they had a very good simple answer that made a great point you don’t forget…”Just stay out of Rifle Range” I never forgot that answer it was a good one, and no need to explain any more than that.

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