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Legal Briefing

Aerobatic Flight, Part Three

Parachutes And Aircraft Certification
Last month we reviewed where in the airspace you may legally perform aerobatic maneuvers. In addition to choosing the place to conduct these maneuvers, we must pay attention to parachute requirements and the operational capabilities of the airplane.

To review, Federal Aviation Regulation 91.303 defines aerobatic flight as "an intentional maneuver involving an abrupt change in an aircraft's altitude, an abnormal attitude, or abnormal acceleration, not necessary for normal flight." Such maneuvers would include loops, rolls, Immelmans, and hammerhead stalls. FAR 91.303 provided us the answer as to where these maneuvers can be conducted by specifying where these maneuvers cannot be conducted: when the visibility is less than three statute miles; when you are below 1,500 feet above the ground; while over a congested area or an open-air assembly of persons; within Class B, C, D, and E airspace; or within four nautical miles of the centerline of a federal airway. If any of these circumstances apply, aerobatic flight is prohibited.

What are the regulatory requirements for outfitting the occupants of the aircraft?

FAR 91.307(c) identifies the parachute requirements for certain flight configurations, including some aerobatic flight activities. That regulation states that:

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

  • A bank of 60 degrees relative to the horizon; or
  • A nose-up or nose-down altitude of 30 degrees relative to the horizon.

By its language, this regulation does not refer to aerobatic flight specifically or exclusively; rather it relates to any kind of flight maneuver that exceeds 60 degrees of bank or 30 degrees of pitch. Some aerobatic maneuvers could conceivably be performed with a shallower bank and flatter pitch, which would mean that parachute requirements would not need to be met.

There are also exceptions to the parachute requirement for those flight maneuvers exceeding 60 degrees of bank and 30 degrees of pitch. FAR 91.307(d) states that the part of the regulations requiring the occupants to wear an approved parachute does not apply to flight tests for pilot certification or ratings, and it does not apply to spins and other flight maneuvers required by the regulations for any certificate or rating when given by a certified flight instructor. Therefore, when performing aerobatic maneuvers during a practical flight test - if those maneuvers must be performed to demonstrate qualification for a certificate or rating - neither the applicant nor the examiner would be required to wear an approved parachute. And, during flight instruction with a certificated flight instructor on board the airplane, for those maneuvers required to be taught by regulation, neither the student nor the flight instructor would be required to wear an approved parachute.

The FAA relaxed the general rule because a certificated flight instructor is properly presumed to have the skill necessary to safely give acrobatic instruction required by the pilot regulations within the operating limitations of the aircraft, without the necessity of wearing parachutes. Moreover, complaints from the field indicate that wearing parachutes in some aircraft may be a hazard to training since the bulk of the parachute may, because of the configuration and size of the pilot seat, reduce the pilot's visibility and hamper his handling of the controls.

Whether aerobatic maneuvers can be performed in a specific model of airplane depends on the category in which the airplane is certificated and any restrictions on the airplane. Airplanes certificated in the Normal category are designed for nonaerobatic flight operations; that is, these airplanes are intended for normal flying, which includes most stalls and steep turns where the angle of bank is not more than 60 degrees. Airplanes certificated in the Utility category are intended for limited aerobatic flight, such as steep turns that exceed 60 degrees of bank. Airplanes certificated in the Acrobatic category are intended for use in almost all aerobatic flight. But, be aware that operational restrictions may be placed on any of these categories of airplanes. It is best to thoroughly check the aircraft flight manual and any placards placed inside the aircraft to identify any maneuvers that are prohibited in that particular aircraft.

So, if you intend to perform aerobatic maneuvers, in addition to identifying where those maneuvers may be conducted, you'll need to know whether you must wear a parachute and whether the airplane is certificated to permit the maneuver you wish to accomplish.

Kathy Yodice is an attorney with Yodice Associates in Washington, D.C., which provides legal counsel to AOPA and administers AOPA's Legal Services Plan. She is an instrument-rated private pilot.

Kathy Yodice

Kathy Yodice

Ms. Yodice is an instrument rated private pilot and experienced aviation attorney who is licensed to practice law in Maryland and the District of Columbia. She is active in several local and national aviation associations, and co-owns a Piper Cherokee and flies the family Piper J-3 Cub.

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