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Old 03-19-2013, 08:41 PM
johnny stick johnny stick is offline
Join Date: Dec 2008
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Posts: 301
Default How low is low?

It seems everyone here is talking about low flight as being something below a couple hundred feet. I think this also applies to higher altitudes. To me low flight is any altitude where if you get in trouble, things could get hairy quick. A case in point, a few years ago a Los Angeles pilot was returning from Mexico. He didn't think he needed to get fuel in Mexico so he left with less than half tanks. He flew up the coast and around Newport Beach he kept low (1500') apparently to avoid talking to the Class C controller. It was getting dark. He ran out of fuel and was too low to make the Class c airport. Tried to land on the beach but touched down in the surf zone, not in the deep water or the sand. The plan flipped over, the canopy could not be opened and they drowned. In this case 1500' was too low for being at a low fuel state, at night, over a densely popluated area. I think low is all relative. JMHO
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Old 03-20-2013, 07:22 AM
OLDSAM OLDSAM is offline
Join Date: Feb 2008
Location: Tucker GA
Posts: 190

It was pretty obvious that the pilot in the video was very familiar with the river and its environs. There is a short stretch of a few miles along the Chattahoochee River north of Atlanta where it is fairly wide and free of power lines that I have flown along at low altitude, in a slow, thus tighter turning, airplane, but below treetops/hilltops only at a couple of spots. There is a highway bridge at the end of the run, which requires the pilot to climb before reaching it, which is why it is a short stretch.
Bottom line, for me, in this situation is to be intimately familiar with the area in which you plan to fly at low altitude.
One thing I would ask the guy in the video is "What happens when you meet someone else doing the same thing in the opposite direction?" Not much escape room there, and not a lot of forward visibility at some of the tighter turns.
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Old 03-20-2013, 07:43 AM
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N42AH N42AH is offline
Join Date: Dec 2007
Location: SC99 - Whiteplains Airpark
Posts: 416
Default Still Valid

"There are "Old Pilots" and there are "Bold Pilots", but there is not such thing as an "Old Bold Pilot".

As one who spent 30 years and 10,000+ hours in helicopters, with a lot of it in the dead mans curve or below 500 ft agl it's just not a healthy thing to do in fast airplanes in my opinion.

I am still learning how to deal with nose bleeds when flying above 1000 ft.
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Old 03-20-2013, 08:48 AM
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F1Boss F1Boss is offline
Join Date: Aug 2006
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Posts: 850
Default +1

Originally Posted by pierre smith View Post
MET towers and new GPS towers also "spring up" overnight!

Ask me how I know.

My boss continually warns me that the towers Pierre refers to indeed DO spring up overnite, and of course these are just high enough to catch the props. Dang near invisible..

Part time, I spray for mosquitoes, using a turbine twin Beech. The ideal altitude varies with wind, but seems 150' is about right most of the time. We are out there at dawn, and we spray right up to the waters' edge. Neither of these factors promotes visibility.
This aeroplane is not maneuverable during the first 45 min of work: 11500# at t/o; these ships grossed at ~9000# from the factory.

Another caveat is the power lines: you can't really see the ground line that runs along the top. So, the survival tip there is to cross any high tension line at the towers - not between.

If this isn't enough to turn you around, there are BIRDS at lower altitudes. LOTS of birds. In big FLOCKS! Heck, I'm spraying over swamp, more or less! DOH! Feels like very accurate German flak at times...

So, if you are sure where the obstacles are, I guarantee you do not know where the BIRDS are. And, some of those are kinda hefty - it is not a good day when you take one of those critters out. They will knock a light bar clean off the plane...what if you are in a plane with no light bar? Bad juju...

Carry on - carefully!
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Old 03-20-2013, 02:23 PM
sailvi767 sailvi767 is offline
Join Date: Sep 2010
Location: Charlotte NC
Posts: 1,461

Surprises can occur at low altitude at almost any time. I remember once many years ago carefully planning a flight in Egypt. We had all the briefings on where we could fly and not fly including altitudes. Took off with my wing man and flew the flight as planned. In the desert near the valley of kings we hit the biggest antenna farm I have ever seen. We were at 540 knots and 500 feet. Some of the antenna were at least 2500 feet high. Both of us slalomed through the 30 plus antenna like Franz Klammer on a downhill run. Popped out the other side shocked we did not hit anything. Landed to find a reception waiting for us. Angry Egyptians demanding to know why we had flown through their most secret installation. We asked why they did not tell us the area was restricted in the briefings or show it on the charts. A red faced angry Egyptian Colonel replied it was not on the charts or in the briefings because it was secret!!!
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Old 03-20-2013, 03:19 PM
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Toobuilder Toobuilder is offline
Join Date: Jul 2009
Location: Mojave
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In my corner of the world it used to be perfectly safe to buzz along at 20 feet AGL. There are thousands of acres of open desert with very few (but well known) obstructions. However, thanks to the Greenies and their wind turbine scam, we now have these MET towers springing up like weeds all over the place. Several months ago I was doing some fuel flow readings, so had the autopilot engaged and running along at 3,000 MSL, which at my house is about 400 AGL, but diminishes due to slightly rising terrain to the west. After taking a quick reading and glancing up, I see one of these skinny little towers flash by slightly above and 50 feet off the wingtip. It wasn?t there a few days before. As much as I enjoy flying low and feel that I?m up the skill requirements, I?ve decided that a successful low level mission even in my own back yard depends way too much upon luck anymore. That takes the fun right out of it for me.
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Old 03-20-2013, 03:55 PM
RV8R999 RV8R999 is offline
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Originally Posted by luddite42 View Post
I'd say that 'Treetop flyer' could do this all day every day without incident, assuming no engine trouble. I don't see anything impulsive about it. If his engine quits, he's either going in the water, or pulling up and landing in the trees. In many parts of the country, there are areas where you're going in the trees (or other inhospitable terrain) no matter how much altitude you have. And have you ever seen the terrain Alaskans fly over? I'll take an engine failure over this creek bed over that, any day.

Yes, 'Treetop flyer' is sustaining some degree of risk higher than cruising at 2000' over the fields of Kansas. That's his risk alone, and he's got the skill and manages it well. The OP may construe this as off topic "ego", but it bothers me when people condemn others' flying as "dangerous" when it simply comes down to varying degrees of skill and risk tolerance. For some, there's nothing worse than seeing another pilot having fun, taking marginally higher risk, and displaying more skill than they have. Unless of course it's at an airshow, where it's perfectly acceptable to kill yourself. Just don't do it on your own out in the country without the proper FAA and ICAS waivers and paperwork allowing you to kill yourself.
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Old 03-21-2013, 06:00 AM
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LAMPSguy LAMPSguy is offline
Join Date: Feb 2008
Location: Pensacola, FL
Posts: 377
Default Not yet...

I am not yet an RV pilot, but I will add my two cents from only a decade of low altitude helicopter flight.

I believe it all comes down to preparation. In the military we fly many hours a year, often fairly dangerous missions. Sure, we have accidents, but we have various procedures to mitigate those risks and learn from them. I think the key is in that last statement. Properly prepare for each flight.

I offer the following for you reconsideration.

1. We use a standardized brief guide every time we fly without exception. Using a guide helps you remember all the important things you need to discuss, especially when your mission is not one you conduct frequently. The brief always begins with a risk management discussion where we have a standardized list of hazards and we discuss methods to mitigate said hazards. Additionally, we have identified those specific hazards which are more likely to kill you. We assign points on a worksheet, as the number increases you are required to get more people (department head or even the CO) to sign off on the flight or you may not decide to perform that mission.

2. Emergencies. We brief all major emergencies prior to each flight in addition to how we will handle them in different flight regimes. For example:

"Fires. If we have an engine fire within 200 feet of the ground, either on takeoff or on final, we will land and fight the fire on deck. If it is above 200 feet we will ensure we are in a safe flight regime, pointed in the direction we want before we secure the engine..." Different aircraft and systems, but the point here is every time, BEFORE we fly, we discuss emergencies and how handling them will be different throughout the flight.

For low level engine failures I also brief if we have enough airspeed we will trade that for altitude...we discuss applicable airspeed and minimum airspeed. I also discuss increased birds/obstacles at low level and that a bird strike may cause a control jam, etc.
The point is that low level flight, as long as you are not breaking any rules, must be performed with forethought and planning so you are prepared for immediate response to emergencies.

3. Flying low over water or in terrain. If you don't do it regularly, you must remember that the "horizon" you think you are seeing very well may be a false horizon. Flying that low, you would want to be "outside" as much as possible, but if you are pulling the nose up to the "horizon" but it is actually a low level cloud or a river bank, you might still be nose down. We do this safely because we have 2 pilots...not a pilot and an observer, 2 pilots. One stays outside, one stays mostly inside, plus we have radalt, etc,etc.

4. If you can safely do it, do it. It is very fun. I have flown everything between a low hover and a high altitude, high mach run. I can say 150 kias 20 ft above the trees feels much faster and more visceral than 1.5M in the flight levels!
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Old 03-21-2013, 09:53 AM
David-aviator David-aviator is offline
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Location: Chesterfield, Missouri
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Low level flight has claimed many even with professional crews and planning. SAC (Stategic Air Command for you younger pilots) used to fly low level practice bomb runs so as to sneak under enemy radar. I recall this one B-47 crew that flew into an Aderondac mountain one night, the largest piece they found was a boot heel, they were going about 400 knots.

Low level flight always cranks up the risk meter, no matter how smart you are or think you are. I wouldn't do it unless there's money in it.
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Last edited by David-aviator : 03-21-2013 at 05:49 PM.
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Old 03-21-2013, 10:33 AM
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Stump Stump is offline
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Location: Parkland Estates, CO
Posts: 55
Default just because you can doesn't mean you should-at least not without proper preparation

The majority of the examples weren't so much about illusions, etc., and a whole lot more about lack of discipline and preparation, with predictable results.

flying in and of itself requires training, preparation and currency to be done safely. flying low requires more specialized training and preparation, as the hazards down low are different than those up high. you mention g excess illusion, flat featureless terrain, g onset rate, sustained g's, etc. absolutely. there is also sun angle, cloud levels, trees vs bushes, small hills hidden in front of large hills, on and on. for those who fly low because they have to, there is quite a bit of specialized training. in the military that involves ground school on the illusions, physiological challenges, crosscheck, etc that are far too expansive to ever be addressed here. it then involves flying checkouts with stepped down altitudes. and of course in depth route study to look for all the towers, wires, structures we know about at least. and then there is the required currency interval. and they only go low for a reason, balanced with the risk to do so. even there, if the risk is too great, it isn't done.
even with all the specific training, there are numerous instances where military jets flying unplanned and impromptu low levels have resulted in tragedy, with the inevitable result making it harder and harder for those who follow the rules.

sure the FAR's allow certain behavior, and therefore technically it is legal. and sure, you can take your shiny little sports car airplane and do so if you wish. but you are very wrong if you think the only person harmed is you when you turn your joyride into a mess of congealed flesh hair teeth and eyeballs mixed with metal. the FAR's also require you to be intimately familiar with your flight for the day, expecting you to conduct thorough flight planning, etc. Diving into a valley and hitting charted powerlines sure makes it clear there wasn't good planning. The entire aviation community suffers a blow every time someone shines their a--, whacks it in, and makes the news.
every one of us loves to share our passion and joy of aviation with others. I would argue that means that especially with others we should strive for the disciplined professional approach aviation demands.

In Pierre's business, flying low is a requirement. And you can bet they are meticulous in knowing what threats are out there, at least those within their means to do so.

So I ask you to think about it. I totally agree flying low to the ground at high speed is a rush, but are you prepared for it, are you trained for it, do you know what you are doing and are you willing to accept the exponentially increased risk of operating down there? just because you can, does it mean you should?

Last edited by Stump : 03-21-2013 at 10:35 AM. Reason: add n
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