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Safety Spotlight: Fly-bysSafety Spotlight: Fly-bys

10 tips to perform them safely

I am not opposed to fly-bys, even though one of my previous columns (“Safety Spotlight: Difficult Conversations,” November 2020 AOPA Pilot) led some readers to believe otherwise.

In that column—which wins the top spot for the most controversial I’ve written at AOPA—I lamented not speaking with a pilot whom I observed making an unfitting fly-by in the Idaho backcountry. Most readers agreed with carefully engaging pilots in a discussion when safety and etiquette are in doubt. A few readers, on the other hand, encouraged me to mind my own business.

Based on the passion behind that column’s responses, I’d like to make another pass at fly-bys. Fly-bys can be fun, safe, and legal, in the right environment, but they are sneakily demanding. They seem easy, which is why we lose pilots to them every year. Legally, keep in mind that the requirements of FAR 91.119 (minimum safe altitudes) are open for interpretation. The FAA has cited pilots for violating FAR 91.119 after intentional fly-bys, even within an airport environment. In some cases, the FAA found explanations that they were just “go-arounds” or “low approaches” to be disingenuous.

We can reduce the risk of fly-bys with a little planning. Impromptu decisions substantially elevate risk in aviation, especially when they involve low-altitude flying. Thus, we should avoid fly-bys on a whim. Take the time to plan your fly-by, then execute methodically. Here are 10 tips for safe fly-bys:

  1. Study the area on a chart. Include a satellite view. Determine the ground level, and establish a minimum altitude “floor” to keep you safe and legal.
  2. Factor in sun position and angle; ideally, the sun will be at your back. Don’t perform a fly-by headed into a low sun.
  3. Avoid fly-bys in areas where depth perception is hampered. Don’t perform a fly-by over glassy water or flat white conditions.
  4. Based on all that you observe, plan a route, which includes direction of flight, minimum altitude, your start point, ingress corridor, target, egress corridor, and end point.
  5. Fly overhead and assess your route. Ensure you have an accurate altimeter setting. Confirm your path is clear of obstacles, terrain, and bird activity. Assess wind and turbulence. Scan for traffic visually and on ADS-B displays.
  6. When ready to execute, focus on these priorities: flying airspeed, clear flight path, altitude awareness.
  7. Once you start the run-in, keep your eyes completely outside the airplane. Set power at mid-range and focus on the far end of the fly-by route, not the target. Avoid the temptation to look at the target as you pass.
  8. After completing the pass, set your bank angle, then pull back gently. Once you’ve confirmed a shallow climb, glance at your airspeed and altitude, and adjust power and attitude as necessary.
  9. Climb to cope. Be ready to abort the pass if anything is amiss. Your first reaction is to climb, then handle any issues.
  10. Make one pass. Don’t return. Many fly-by mishaps occur in the reposition off the first pass. Airshow pilots will tell you that some of their highest risk is away from the crowd in repositions, the maneuvering that takes place after a stunt to return to show center. Inexperienced fly-by pilots tend to underestimate the time and space needed for a reposition, and they turn back too quickly, without enough horizontal and vertical offset. That sets them up for what is in effect a base-to-final stall/spin. They overshoot the intended flight path, correct with too much bank, inside rudder, and “G”—then stall/spin, with no room to recover.

Avoid intentional low-altitude fly-bys in the backcountry, flown just for a thrill. This does not include go-arounds or fly-bys to assess fields for safety of flight purposes. Those should always be encouraged when appropriate. When flying the backcountry, pilots need to remember we are not alone. We share a responsibility to protect the wilderness experience with backpackers, rafters, cyclists, horseback riders, and more. These adventurers are just as passionate about enjoying the great outdoors as GA pilots. It takes an enormous amount of work with local, state, and federal agencies to keep these airfields open. That work is far more difficult if other users gang up against aviation. Just a little courtesy goes a long way. If you’re itching for the sensation of speed or to show off your airplane or your skills, there are more appropriate and more exciting settings for your fly-by.

Go fly. If you’re considering a fly-by, make it safe, legal, and fun with a little planning.

Email [email protected]

Richard McSpadden

Senior Vice President - AOPA Air Safety Institute
Richard McSpadden lead’s AOPA’s ASI, committed to reducing General Aviation mishaps by providing free educational resources and supporting initiatives that improve General Aviation safety and grow the pilot population.

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