Landing or Buzzing? Know CFR 91.119

Flying Cowboy Trent Palmer got a 60 day suspension for low flying. Understanding 91.119 is critical to avoiding this outcome; read SAFEblog.

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)!

Join SAFE and enjoy great benefits (like 1/3 off ForeFlight)! Your membership supports our mission of increasing aviation safety by promoting excellence in education.  Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts all required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitates CFI+DPE teamwork. Our SAFE CFI insurance was developed by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business). #flySAFE

Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

20 thoughts on “Landing or Buzzing? Know CFR 91.119”

    1. I don’t follow Mr. Palmer at all, but unless it’s a label he applies to himself, you labeling Trent Palmer as a “Flying Cowboy” is utter nonsense! You don’t have to believe what he’s told the FAA… even if it’s the absolute truth; that’s on you. But calling him names makes you out to be the a__hole here!

      1. “Flying Cowboys” is a term this group of pilots chose for themselves (not my depiction of this pilot’s actions). I am merely pointing out how this reg has historically been applied, not judging this pilot’s actions. See their website here: https://www.theflyingcowboys.com/

  1. Inspecting a landing area is buzzing now? No.

    The take away message is that once you descend within 500 feet of a person, vessel, vehicle or structure, you are committed to landing and have no authority as PIC to go around.

    Unless, of course a lawyer doesn’t see the necessity of making that landing in the first place, and then you can still be violated.

  2. Strongly disagree. “Necessary for landing and takeoff” is actually quite ambiguous, and the ALJ ruling in Trent’s case impacts many areas of aviation. What about the missed approach practice that I’m during with my CFI currently? We have no intention of landing and are making the approach completely for training purposes. That runs afoul of the reg, as our approach to ILS minimums clearly takes us below 500’ AGL (and structures/people), and was not “necessary for landing”. Trent’s overfly is technically an approach with no intent of landing, but is preparatory to landing, and should be safeguarded. The FAA left a massive hole in this reg, and I hope Trent’s case provides the necessary clarification. He did nothing wrong.

    1. Most of those 81 cases I researched read identical to this one. The FAA has litigated cases exactly like this for 30 years; same reg., same result – nothing new.

      1. David… this was not a low pass to inspect the field for landing. I’m not fooled and neither was the FAA or the judge. The regs they sited don’t tell the real story. Trent used his buddy’s field to bother the neighbor before… this looks like he upped the anti with a full size plane.
        This was not just careless and reckless, it was done deliberately to harm someone on the ground.
        He got off very lite. And this appeal could change the ruling… not in a good way.
        I smell revoke.

    2. Randall,
      Please read the “Anderson Letter of Interpretation”, as referenced above. That FAA legal document clearly states that 91.119 generally does not apply to operations within the traffic pattern of an airport.

      1. The key word here is ‘generally’. Sometimes traffic patterns can go out for several miles from the airport when there are about a dozen planes in the pattern.
        I saw this yesterday at my local airport.

      2. So I now leave the regs and trust a legal interpretation that uses terms like “generally”? AYFKM? It needs to be in the reg, period. Otherwise we’re all just at the whim of some ALJ just like Trent is. 3 miles out (outside of “traffic pattern”), happened to drop below glide slope by a couple dots, crap, guess I lose my license for 60 days.

        Bottom line is the FAA treats regs like law, and yet doesn’t provide a proper path to enforcement or appeal. Regs should not have wiggle room; because there will always be bullies in power who will use that wiggle room for their own amusement in prosecuting people who did nothing wrong.

        Trent intended to land in his neighbors back yard. As part of that intention he followed the FAA guidelines regarding a low pass to observe the landing strip. Finding it truly unsuitable he decided to not land and continued on. The fact that his initial intention was to land and every action after that was around the purpose of landing should have been interpreted as being within the reg as stated. Period. Any other interpretation ignores the fact that the actions in question were necessary for landing. Leave it up to a couple of Karens with a camera and a judge who doesn’t know jack-sh*t about off-airport ops to mess up what was likely a very good day.

      3. Yes, and that exception “applies equally to all practice approaches”. It wouldn’t make any sense to encourage pilot proficiency and then make rules that prohibit same.

      4. Warren, that interpretation also says it applies equally to low approaches as well…like, you know, inspection passes.

        *waits quietly for response that won’t come*

  3. I did have a pause a few weeks ago when I saw a plane flying very low over a populated area presumably to land. I live close to a very busy tower controlled GA airport in Atlanta. I am very use to seeing planes flying into and out of the airport while I’m outside working in the yard.
    My house is also on the helicopter departure / arrival to the north where they frequently fly low to avoid the fixed wing traffic or fly tours.
    A Piper came over my house very low, so low I was concerned. His engine was almost at idle as he came over. So it wasn’t a noise problem. I thought he was going to crash into the trees.
    Again, I see planes and helicopters flying over all the time. And I fly both helicopters and planes out of this airport frequently enough to judge the aircraft height above the ground and distance to the airport.
    He was below 500ft AGL at 3 miles from the airport.

    My first thought was this flight was careless and reckless if it wasn’t an emergency.
    Yes, that plane was clearly heading for a tower controlled airport for landing. But, This guy, I hope was a confused student pilot, was well below the pipeline patrol planes flight level or helicopter route. It was at an altitude where if something did go wrong he was going to hit a house or apartment building in a very populated area.
    I almost went to the flight school (it was a well know color plane for a flight school at the airport) to see who was flying.
    I don’t like dragging a plane in over the numbers using power. It doesn’t feel safe. And if you are using a good bit of power to make it to the numbers, you are flying to low.
    This guy looked like he was practicing slow flight below 500 ft AGL. I really hope it wasn’t an instructor trying to show off his flight skills low and slow.
    It was clearly dangerous.

  4. I think relying on the Off Airport Ops Guide may be stretching things. From what I see on the pdf, it was produced by the Alaskan Region FAASTeam and intended as a guide for transporting people and gear to locations that would be difficult or impossible to reach in any other way.

  5. Randall – “he followed the FAA guidelines regarding a low pass to observe the landing strip.” I would question that. The intended landing location does not appear to follow the intent of the Off Airport Ops Guide.

    1. The off airport landing attempt is total BS. He flew drones and RCaircraft at his buddy’s house… and knew the nieghbor was pissed off about the RC planes… I’m not fooled.
      Got the picture now… he got off lite.
      But that can change.

  6. I started following Trent because of his top level professional commercial drone work. He flys drones with cams that cost more than many peoples homes, and you have likely seen his work in movies and commercials and didn’t know it.
    His full size plane is a toy for him, and isn’t supposed to be used commercial purposes, as it is an experimental aircraft and he is a private pilot.
    His buddy set up a make shift un official RC plane field in his back yard. The buddy’s neighbor was clearly upset over the constant RC buzzing and had contacted the FAA before. By the reaction of this neighbor saying he was going to take him down, or words to this extent, clearly Trent new his buddies neighbor didn’t like being buzzed by little or big planes. And Trent had used the RC field before (he knew it was way too small to safely land on with a full size aircraft from ground visual inspection) so this fly bye to Survey for a landing didn’t fool the FAA or the judge.
    This was a buzz job, and I believe it was to screw with the neighbor… as does the FAA and the judge.
    He got off lite.
    I like the guys videos, but… he may be setting himself up for much worse actions.
    The neighbor can still sue him, and… it really does appear he used his plane in harassing manner.
    This was likely just a jack a$$ move, but he doesn’t seem to get it.
    He is literally thumbing his nose up at the FAA, and making up a total BS story… and for what? Pubic opinion? It wasn’t the FAA that made all the complaints… or buzzed some pissed off nieghbor.
    And now, it appears he is using and experimental aircraft with a private certificate to conduct a commercial for profit operation… much like what he is doing with his drones, that he is certificates to do.
    This could turn out very bad for him… he made the Appeal, and the appeal can change the ruling to a revoke of his certificates… all of them, including his drone certificate.

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