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In my last article (The “C” in PIC), I talked a lot about what it means to be PIC and why it is just as much a skill as it is a title, and one I am constantly trying to earn on every flight. This realization came to me after one of my first real cross-countries, a flight chock full of lessons learned that I have subsequently applied to all my cross-country trips since. One of the key takeaways from that fateful trip was the importance of altitude and why that choice is so fundamental to being a good PIC.

It was the perfect shock and awe campaign:  fly my family along the Skyline Route northbound along the Hudson Corridor to see New York City in all its glory before taking a hard right at the Alpine Tower to fly east along the coastline to the Groton-New London Airport (KGON) to spend the day in Mystic, CT (yeah, the pizza one). I planned to take the club’s DA40 since the Diamond offers incredible visibility for both me and my passengers.

diamond da40

I planned to take the club’s DA40 since the Diamond offers incredible visibility for both me and my passengers

On the day of the trip, § 91.103 (Preflight action) was in full effect. I literally obtained a dozen or so briefings to ensure that there wasn’t even a hint of some friendly sea breeze that could be construed as clear air turbulence. I then insured that the DA40 was in tip-top shape and had enough fuel in it to probably make Disney World (either one). Finally, and most importantly, I called the FBO to ensure that the popcorn machine was fully operational just before take-off–thankfully, it was.

And the trip went exactly as planned. I negotiated with Newark Tower for the Skyline at 1,500 feet then coordinated with LaGuardia Tower to get flight following, before being finally handed off to New York Approach for the rest of the way to KGON. The weather was exactly as forecasted (I know, right?), and it was the smoothest flight ever recorded by man.

new york skyline

I negotiated with Newark Tower for the Skyline at 1,500 feet.

Now ask me what altitude I flew after taking that hard right at the Alpine Tower? That’s right, 1,500 feet. And what altitude did I fly the entire coast of Connecticut? That’s right, 1,500 feet. It gets better. Because for whatever reason, New York Approach wouldn’t negotiate with Bridgeport’s Tower (KBDR) for the transition, I was asked to avoid KBDR’s Class Delta airspace altogether. And I did. At, you guessed it, 1,500 feet. Over the water. Go me.

During my debrief, I constantly kept coming back with, why did I stay at 1,500 feet? Why didn’t I plan for a climb to a more reasonable cruising altitude as soon as I was able? And more fundamentally, why did I even feel comfortable flying at such a low altitude from the start?

Sure, I could pull out my low-time pilot card and call it a day, but that felt like a copout. The answer I kept coming back to the more I thought about it was this:  I simply wasn’t used to flying, well, higher. All my primary training was done at 3,000 feet or less. I was used to flying low, not § 91.119 (Minimum safe altitude) illegally so, but low nevertheless, and always avoiding clouds. In fact, if I could visually see a cloud deck from the ground, it would mean the troposphere ended at around 3,000 feet for me regardless of what the actual ceilings were.

And the truth is I see a lot of my fellow pilots do the same thing, especially those without instrument ratings or haven’t leveraged their rating in years. For example, I’ve watched a friend flight plan across two state lines at a cool 2,500 feet. And then another fly down over the New Jersey Pine Barrens at only 2,000 (if the oven quits, I sincerely hope he likes cranberries). I also had a friend of mine who instead of working with New York to obtain a Bravo clearance decided to fly under it (I’ll leave the altitude as an exercise for the reader).

Steep turn

I see a lot of my fellow pilots choose a low altitude when it’s not necessary.

Be advised, I’m not here to lecture you on what the “right” altitude is. Heck, I won’t even claim that choosing the “right” altitude for any given flight is even easy. In fact, depending on context, there are plenty of good reasons to fly lower rather than higher other than the obvious ones like supercooled water droplets or temperature inversions.

But if there is just one takeaway from this article, I want you to fly away with, it’s this:  The altitude you fly is not just about maintaining legal cruising altitudes, visual requirements, or direction of flight. It’s very much a calculated choice, and one you make as PIC that should factor things you can’t just read on a map or lookup in the FAR/AIM.

For example, what you consider “light chop” may be drastically different than what your passengers are used to. I’ve already had at least one passenger (read: my wife) get sick from what I would consider routine bumpiness during a flight.

Altitude is also your best defense against most in-flight emergencies including catastrophic engine failure. The higher you fly, the more time you have to make a forced landing or even better, diagnose and recover.

Then there are the prevailing winds and fuel considerations – particularly on long flights. I always hear how every pilot makes sure they have at least an hour of reserve before take-off, yet fuel exhaustion is still a thing. Altitude plays a big role here.

Coming full circle, the next time you are choosing an altitude, look beyond the Sectional or the MEA. Sure, you need to always stay legal, but as you know, legal doesn’t mean safe or in some cases, even practical. Exercise those “P-Skills” and choose wisely. Trust me, the view is still great even when you are high.

Alexander Sack
Latest posts by Alexander Sack (see all)
4 replies
  1. Jason Kupfersmid
    Jason Kupfersmid says:

    I’m pondering how regional differences have an impact on altitude choice. Flying out of VGT (North Las Vegas, NV) as my “home” airport, mountainous terrain is always a consideration as VGT is smack in the middle of the Vegas Valley. Typical flight plan is for an altitude of 6,500, 7,500, or 8,500 depending on direction flying and terrain to be encountered (I fly a C172). In addition to clearing mountains, there are not many spots to set down when flying over the desert, I like to stay within gliding range of being able to land on a road/interstate if necessary should the engine quit. Flying at a higher altitude gives more choices and time to best figure out a course of action.

  2. Warren Webb Jr
    Warren Webb Jr says:

    I’m based in CT. 1500ft along the coast is a beautiful flight. There are three Class D airports right there that make transitions rather impossible. I would have gone to 2800ft (I like a 300ft cushion) to hop over Bridgeport, Sikorsky, and New Haven, and then back to 1500ft if desired for more detail.

  3. Robert Thomas
    Robert Thomas says:

    I fly southern NE, RI primarily. Cruising around at 1000-1500 is the norm. There’s a lot to see, and you can’t see it way up there. Running out to the Cape for breakfast, then sure, pop up to 3K. Yep. There’s risk to lower altitude. But there’s risk getting out of bed too.


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