Editorial disclaimer: These are my views and opinions alone. Operate at your own risk.
I recently watched a very popular YouTube video that illustrated the beauty of nap of the Earth flying. The pilot, flying a J-3, is very experienced and very familiar with the area he was flying. Link here: http://youtu.be/X_Kt_CxXxtA
I will go ahead and state for the record, and in spite of my safety-promotional-ways, that I am not opposed to this type of flying, but…
The problem we get into in this day-and-age of viral videos is that some might watch something like this and then immediately feel compelled to emulate it with no thought of the legalities, hazards, or physics involved. In the unlikely event that I produce a low flying video it will have disclaimers all over it so as not to encourage someone to take unnecessary risks.
There are thousands of aviation professionals that make their living flying low all day long so we know it can be done legally and safely.
But, and it’s a big BUT, these folks are trained to do this kind of flying and they generally aren’t carrying innocent bystanders or showing off. The latter two are what have gotten pilots into trouble.
They know the area they are operating so ground-based hazards can be avoided. This is one of the things that almost ended my career before it ever started (article here).
Also, the professionals aren’t down there buzzing friends or family (not legal – see FAR references below), so they avoid the whole stall-spin hazard that folks get into. By the way, the video I watched didn’t have any of that kind of flying, just low n’ slow in a J-3 Cub.
Finally, the professional understands the physics involved with staying out of box canyons or what to do in case of an engine failure.
I’m always amazed that many of the amateur videos show low flying over water. It is spectacular, but if the engine fails and you don’t have enough energy to get to land, it going to be a very bad day. If you are in a fixed gear aircraft you should expect to flip over as soon as the gear touches the water. The sudden stop will probably render you and your passenger unconscious and upside under water. Chances of survival are very low. In fact two people perished in a Cub leaving Oshkosh after ditching in Lake Winnebago with eyewitnesses watching it happen. The Cub wouldn’t have had a lot of energy hitting the water, but with no shoulder harness…well you can figure out the rest.
The regulation (14 CFR 91.119) is clear. 1000′ from person or property or 500′ from person or property in “non-congested” areas. What isn’t as clear is 14 CFR 91.13 Careless and Reckless. It is so broad that if you have an accident or hurt someone, you can expect that to be added to your list of condemnations. Also, each FAA guy or gal has their own interpretation, so you should go ahead and assume there will be some risk of regulatory entanglement if your low level sortie isn’t carefully scripted and executed (and even then you never know). Worst case someone gets hurt. Note this Stearman pilot in Wisconsin was charged with homicide after striking wires on a low level flight with a passenger - 2007 Aero-News Network article here.
My intent isn’t to say you can never fly below pattern altitude, nor do I want to scare anyone. My intent is to make sure you have considered all of the risks and how to mitigate them before you do something that you might regret, especially if you are carrying passengers.
Flying low is a polarizing subject, so let’s hear your opinions. Don’t worry, you won’t offend me.
Enjoy the view!