Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, March 6, 2012

How Low Should You Go?

Speed never looks so spectacular as when you’re close to the ground

FAA regulations stipulate that there's no altitude limit when there's no risk to people or structures. But is it smart?
The indiscretions of youth. It's all too easy to examine stupid pilot tricks and dismiss them as functions of immaturity. Back in the late '70s/early '80s, when I was younger and obviously much smarter, I was good friends with the world's most successful Mooney, Maule and Grumman American dealer, Joe Geiger of Performance Aircraft in Long Beach, Calif. In those days, Joe sold more 201s, 231s, Tigers, Cougars and Maules than anyone else.

I was editor of this magazine back then and had frequent need to travel to the manufacturers in Kansas, Texas, Georgia and Florida. Joe's aggressive sales record meant he was in need of new inventory every few days, so there was a steady stream of new airplanes flowing into Long Beach. Joe gave me carte blanche to pick up anything he needed delivered to California, and new Mooneys were my favorite rides. I probably delivered four-dozen 201s, 231s and 252s from the factory to Long Beach in those glorious days when general aviation was selling 10,000-17,000 airplanes a year.

Flying Mooneys across West Texas, New Mexico and Arizona provided the perfect opportunity (if not a reasonable excuse) to fly low. After you depart Kerrville, there's little in the way of people until El Paso, almost nothing between there and Phoenix, and finally, not much except desert between Phoenix and L.A. Accordingly, I used todrop down to 500 feet and enjoy the view. When there was nothing in sight but sagebrush and horny toads, I'd descend even lower. Though it was technically legal, it wasn't terribly smart. In the outback of the Southwest, I sometimes flew low enough that the only radar to track me belonged to the Highway Patrol.

I learned a lot flying low: checking the wind by watching cows face out of it or looking for the lee on calm water, examining circular irrigation in West Texas, discovering that what you assumed were sheep from 8,000 feet were actually turkeys from 500 feet, and looking down on crop dusters doing their amazing flying at five feet AGL or less.

I wasn't terribly smart in those days, and I did some things I probably wouldn't repeat now that I'm a lot older and still not very smart. Everyone knows the regulations regarding minimum altitude; 1,000 feet over a congested area, 500 feet above a sparsely populated zone and no limit when there's no risk to people or structures. (The FAA's specific wording is, "An altitude allowing, if a power unit fails, an emergency landing without undue hazard to persons or property on the surface." FAR 91-119. In other words, you're allowed to fly into the ground as long as you don't hit anything but dirt.)

The obvious question is: Should you fly low? The instinctive reaction of most pilots will be a strong and emphatic, NO. For the majority of aviators, higher is nearly always better, and there's no question that operating high is more efficient and safer.

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