“If you’re going to fly low,” said my first flight instructor, “you had better know how to do it right.” We then cranked up the old Aeronca Champion and went out for a low-level dual excursion around the countryside. As I found out during his pre-planned route, things looked different from a traffic-pattern perspective. We didn’t break any minimum-altitude rules, we just didn’t climb up to the usual 2,000-feet AGL cruising level. For his training objective, flying at 800 feet or so was low enough.
Why would you ever fly so low? As he explained, it might be necessary to stay that low just to remain in VFR conditions when the weather suddenly collapses and you need to turn around and get back home. And we occasionally participated in Civil Air Patrol search missions, which had to be conducted at low level. Amateur attempts at aerial photography require some expertise in flight at low altitude. Plus, once in a while you just want to go sightseeing instead of riding an electronic course line in the upper airspace.
I will note here that all of these kinds of missions carry with them considerable additional risk. How much is hard to say, but it’s a lot. These kinds of flights aren’t common, and yet the accident record shows an inordinate number of accidents blamed on low-level manuevering, or “buzzing,” as we often refer to it. Accidents caused by mistakes when maneuvering at low level are usually fatal ones, and the accidents have a common theme: The pilots who were flying low had little experience with low-level flying, they were doing so on the spur of the moment, and they had, hence, not formulated a plan.
There are also regulatory and neighborly considerations. As my grizzled CFI pointed out, there are some operational differences to be observed when flying at low level. We need to be considerate of other people, such as those living under our flight path. To reduce our noise footprint, we should pull the power back to a low-cruise setting and stay away from built-up housing areas. Even though we’re not flying over a town, there can be clusters of developments along highways, and there are isolated schoolyards and even airports that should be avoided. Open countryside is our objective, although we may encounter a farmhouse along the way.