The legal precedent for FAA violations under CFR 91.119 for low flying (buzzing) is long-standing and well-established. A quick search found 81 cases in the NTSB files over a 20-year period (guilty as charged). You will probably never be violated if you are operating at a charted airport (in a normal manner). The Anderson Letter of Interpretation is pretty well established on this point.
But if you are not near a charted airport in the backcountry, you could easily be sanctioned if what you are doing looks like a “buzz job” (and it will stick). This current interpretation is a problem for a pilot assessing a landing site with the (FAA recommended) high, intermediate and low-level recon passes: “Make at least 3 recon passes at different levels before attempting a landing.” If you have not seen, Flying Cowboy Trent Palmer is appealing a 60-day suspension for low flying with the classic 91.13 (careless and reckless) and 91.119 (low flying) violations.
The mistake many pilots make with the current interpretation is assuming that CFR 91.119 is a “get out of jail free card” e.g. just say I was in the “take-off and landing phase of flight” and you will be absolved; wrong! This reg does not work like that. The exact words are: “Except when necessary for landing or takeoff” (emphasis added). Here is the Trent Palmer YouTube:
SAFE member Mike Vivion shared this article he wrote for Water Flying in 2010. Mike has over 30 years flying floats, wheels, and skis in the Alaska bush country for US Fish & Wildlife and Department of Interior. He is very familiar with these cases and also the common misconceptions most pilots hold about the “approach and landing.” The current FAA interpretation of 91.119 can easily get you in trouble:
Most pilots understand that they are required to maintain 500 feet separation between their aircraft and persons or property on the surface, and at least 1000 feet above a “congested area”. But, in my experience, many pilots assume that during landing or takeoff this distance requirement no longer applies. But the first line of 91.119 reveals the specific verbiage which can get you in trouble: “Except when necessary for takeoff or landing…”
Pilots of wheel-equipped airplanes rarely cross paths with the FAA on this point, because they are most often landing on established runways that have specified approach and departure paths. If a photographer, for example, stands near the approach end of a runway while my airplane is on approach to land on that runway, am I expected to go land somewhere else? Not unless to continue the approach would constitute a hazard to the photographer or my aircraft. In that case, it may be necessary for me to approach closer than 500 feet to the photographer during the landing approach because of the layout of the airport and its operating surfaces.
If nobody complains, and there’s no FAA Inspector around, more than likely nothing will come of this event… More and more, the recreating public sees airplanes as some sort of insidious threat, and nearly everyone has a cell phone with a camera these days. The likelihood of a violation ensuing [during non-airport operations] is pretty good if someone gets their underwear in a knot about us landing a seaplane near their boat/jetski/dock/etc.
There are more good comments on the Super Cub Forum if you want additional perspective on the challenge of off-airfield operations. One important pro tip for talking with the FAA during an inquiry; don’t! Get a lawyer right away if it is serious. This is when your AOPA pilot protection plan is very handy. Aviation administrative law is entirely different from our familiar civil law (no jury of your peers, fewer rights, etc). Unfortunately, many pilots incriminate themselves immediately when talking with the FAA by admitting everything – and you made their case for them. Even proving you were the pilot of the plane is often a problem in these cases (a blurry video). Also, remember to file a NASA (ASRS) Form if you ever even suspect a violation (it’s free). This is your real “get out of jail free” card.
Hopefully, you will never need this detailed understanding of 91.119 (stay out of the weeds). Fly safe out there (and often)!
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