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

Start Honest; “Engagement Letter!”

An “engagement letter” is a simple statement of professional responsibilities, duties and expectations. Most often lawyers insist on these agreements as a first step before beginning any professional relationship. And that is because most lawyers have extensive experience with human suffering and “misunderstandings.” Start with the facts and expected outcome but also imagine what might go wrong.

The primary purpose of an engagement letter is to assure a clear understanding on both sides; standards and expectations. We know every person’s perspective is different several months into any relationship – but especially after lots of time, money and effort are invested. I think a document like this could go a long way toward curing the ridiculous 80% dropout rate in aviation training (it can provide protections on both sides if properly constructed). Better to start honest with defined terms and also a commitment toward a mutually agreeable outcome.

The flight training relationship is almost comically one-sided favoring the flight training provider. They have significant overhead and capital investment, bonded with a very thin margin in an unstable business environment. The over-eager flight student, usually ignorant of the true difficulties and hidden expenses can be an “easy mark.” Unfortunately, it is also easy to fool yourself (the provider), into believing you are helping an eager client by getting them flying immediately. But aviation is a long game, for everyone involved, and I recommend serious honest appraisal and planning at the start. Lay out the facts, but also sell the sizzle – we all became pilots and obviously still love it.

The whole aviation industry suffers when you promulgate the “big lie” of “faster/cheaper/easier.” People sold a bill of goods quit as quickly as they start and give our business a bad reputation. And sometimes blood gets shed when incomplete learning and lower standards lead to stupid accidents. Ultimately, educators do better with honesty – working with students who fully “buy in.” An honest relationship from the start builds clients who do their homework and ask for another hour to really master control. The good students accept responsibility and honestly want to be better (not just “get by”)! These are the people you actually like and want to fly with.

So “start honest” and reveal the wonderful opportunities; the challenge and adventure, the satisfaction of real achievement. Share the passion and some amazing experiences. But also reveal the facts; it costs a lot, takes real effort and the at times mother nature holds all the cards. Appeal to their sense of happy longevity and safety; it kinda sucks to suffer in a hospital bed.

In the final analysis, honesty is the essential ingredient for safe flying, for both yourself and others. Physics is not “bendable” or “forgiving.” Pilots who are sold a lie and succeed anyway often display “magical thinking” in their flying activities. These are the pilots who try to “stretch gas” and “cheat weather.” And we all know this only works for so long until the luck runs out -“what were they thinking?” They got sold a lie right from the beginning. Start honest with real numbers. It wasn’t easy, or cheap, but it was worth every penny. Fly safely out there (and often).

Get the FREE SAFE Toolkit App  (FREE). This contains all the new ACS knowledge test codes plus all the required pilot endorsements and experience – right on your smartphone. Join SAFE and receive other great benefits (1/3 off ForeFlight is sweet!)

Our CFI insurance was developed by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business – honest!) Bind online or call/visit AIR-PROS.COM And get discounts by rating your flying with CloudAhoy on the Starrgate App.


%d bloggers like this: