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Proficient Pilot: How low do you go?

Temptation at low altitudes

When I was a pilot for TWA, I spent much time in St. Louis.

Barry SchiffWhen I was a pilot for TWA, I spent much time in St. Louis. Our layover hotel was across the street from the 630-foot-tall (and wide) Gateway Arch. Many of us invariably discussed what it would be like to fly a jetliner under this, the world’s largest arch. There certainly was plenty of room for an L–1011. One problem was the tall buildings west of the arch. Would it be best to descend steeply over these buildings and toward the span, or would it be best to fly low over the Mississippi River, under the span, and then up and over the buildings?

Although no air carrier pilot would seriously entertain such a stunt, a few foolhardy general aviation pilots have done it.

Such structures have always lured pilots. There was, for example, the P–51 pilot who flew through the Arc de Triomphe in Paris in celebration of V-E Day during World War II. Then there was the idiot who, in more recent years, flew a Beech Bonanza through the archway of the Eiffel Tower (on his way out of the country).

At home, the Golden Gate Bridge and other structures—both natural and manmade—have tempted pilots to fly beyond the limits of reason. Although flying beneath an obstacle is a way for a pilot to vent his suicidal tendency, other pilots prefer flying low and following the Earth’s contours like a cartographer’s pen on a chart. They are presumably rewarded by the rush, the increased sense of speed when so close to the ground. Some such pilots have paid the ultimate price for their carelessness.

Those lured by low flying often do not consider the possibility of tangling with wires or striking birds, the likelihood of which increases as one gets closer to the ground. Another problem is that low-flying pilots do not allow sufficient time and altitude to cope with mechanical problems that can develop. Inadvertently running a fuel tank dry might only be an annoyance at altitude, but the same experience at 100 feet can force a landing with little or no choice of landing sites.

The most dangerous type of “buzzing” involves maneuvering near the ground such as when circling a friend’s house. A pilot unaccustomed to turning at low altitude can become fatally distracted, or he might misjudge turn radius and simply fly into an obstacle. It happens.

If the fickle finger of fate fails to point in a pilot’s direction, then the FAA’s finger might. Low flying is one of the most common regulatory violations. One reason for this might be the wording of FAR 91.119: Minimum Safe Altitudes.

Pilots know that they must fly at least 1,000 feet above the tallest obstacle (within a horizontal radius of 2,000 feet) when over “congested areas” and 500 feet agl when over “other than congested areas.” Also, they may fly at less than 500 feet when over “sparsely populated areas,” as long as the aircraft is not operated closer than 500 feet to any person, vehicle, or structure. The problem is that these areas are vaguely defined.

For example, pilots have been hung out to dry for flying less than 1,000 feet above an isolated school or cluster of homes, each of which has been regarded by the FAA as congested areas. And what is the difference between “other than congested” and “sparsely populated”? Unfortunately, the only way to find out with certainty is during an enforcement action.

What about a pilot flying over a barren desert who flies within 500 feet of a single telephone line? He is in technical violation because such a line is considered a structure.

Shortly after receiving my private pilot certificate on my seventeenth birthday in 1955, I took my girlfriend for her first flight. She wanted to see our high school from the air. With the impetuousness of youth, I lowered the snub nose of the Aeronca Champ and took aim at the athletic field of University High School in Los Angeles.

“Look,” my girlfriend shouted from the rear seat. “There’s a football game. Let’s go down for a closer look.”

The little 65-horsepower engine pulled us from one goal post to the other so slowly that everyone in the stands had ample time to observe and jot down our registration number.

It was determined at the hearing that my certificate would be suspended for 90 days, which was lenient by today’s standards. I begrudgingly surrendered my freshly minted temporary certificate.

A week later, my permanent certificate arrived in the mail. I chose to regard this bureaucratic bungle as a beneficent reversal of my punishment and promptly resumed flying (at safer altitudes).

Barry Schiff was inducted as a Living Legend of Aviation in 2012.


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