What are the regulations concerning minimum altitudes to be observed? The “minimum safe altitude” rules have been essentially unchanged since the 1940s, which means they are not always logically applicable in this day and age. But from a legal standpoint, you can fly as low as 500 feet above open countryside or 1,000 feet above congested areas and open-air assemblies of persons, as measured from the top of any obstruction within 2,000 feet of the aircraft. The 500-foot rule also applies to lateral distance from any structure or person when flying below 500 feet AGL over water or unpopulated areas. Even when I learned to fly, these were considered DUMB rules. Flying at 500 feet above the ground should be considered a last resort, reserved for extracting oneself from an emergency bad-weather situation. One should avoid using the ancient rules written for J-3 Cubs when operating faster, less-maneuverable modern airplanes.
What hangar lawyers often fail to recognize is the beginning paragraph of FAR 91.119, which makes the pilot responsible for maintaining an altitude allowing for the safe execution of an emergency landing “without undue hazard to persons or property on the surface” after an engine failure. Regardless of the verbiage that follows it, the FAA expects pilots to add enough extra altitude to carry out the duties inherent in this sub-paragraph (a). If found to be negligent in this respect, you may be subject to a violation.
Bear in mind that the ADS-B Out data stream is a game changer when it comes to proving culpability. No longer is it possible to contest the opinion of eyewitnesses or the momentary hit of a transponder reply. ADS-B knows all and tells all, right down to ground level.
Therefore, it behooves us to do our low-altitude flying with regard to today’s exigencies. Flying low is still a valid option, but a growing population sprawl and more tender sensibilities require us to exercise due care.