Accident Probe: Unwarranted

Intentional low flying without training or preparation is the definition of ‘reckless.’


Pilots fly for different reasons. For some, it’s a living. For others, it’s recreation or personal transportation. Some want to go fast to distant destinations; some want to go slow because they’re not going anywhere anyway. It’s not uncommon for pilots to want to do all of these things at one time or another.

There’s no question that personal aviation can be exciting. But the ways we make it exciting can be problematic. For example, launching into a thunderstorm qualifies as exciting, at least for a while. If you survived, you’d certainly have a story to tell. The same is true for, say, attempting aerobatics without training or depending on the autopilot in lieu of an instrument rating.

One special category of pilots are those for whom going fast is important. Why? Because speed is relative. At altitude on a severe clear day, there’s little sensation of speed. We have to get close to something before our speed becomes apparent. And the risk with getting close to something is we might hit it. While untrained pilots who engage in such risky behaviors aren’t the norm, there’s enough of them that the practice has its own term: unwarranted low flying. Its use apparently has fallen out of favor, but the phrase “unwarranted low flying” has populated numerous NTSB reports over the years.

The risks of flying low—the definition of which can vary (see the sidebar below)—depend on the aircraft, topography and a host of other factors. But they all come down to hitting the ground with a lot of energy, perhaps after first hitting an obstruction. Sometimes, the reasons we collide with an obstruction can be complicated. And then there’s just being reckless.


On October 13, 2017, at 1734 Central time, a Cessna 172M Skyhawk was destroyed when it collided with power lines and then fell into the Mississippi River near Ramsey, Minn. The private pilot/owner and the passenger were fatally injured. Visual conditions prevailed for the flight, which originated from the Princeton (Minn.) Municipal Airport (PNM) at about 1705.

Radar initially recorded the airplane at 1708, and it then headed south. At 1731, the airplane turned southeast and flew for about a mile before reversing course to the northwest and proceeding along the Mississippi River. The final data point was recorded at 1733, with the airplane about 0.25 mile east of the Ferry Street Bridge. That turned out to be about 2.5 miles southeast of the power lines it struck. At no point did the recorded transponder information include Mode C data.

Witnesses later reported the airplane struck the power lines as it flew along the river. Several witnesses observed the airplane below the trees lining both sides of the river; one witness presumed the pilot intended to fly under the power lines due to the low altitude. Witnesses also noted the engine’s sound seemed normal and steady.


There was a set of four power lines installed across the river, which was about 190 yards wide at that point and bordered on both sides with wooded areas. To follow it in the accident airplane’s direction of flight would have required an approximate heading of 250 degrees. The airplane came to rest in 12 feet of water.

The power lines were installed with dual-pole supports on each shoreline extending to 47 feet AGL, which also was the approximate treetop height along the river banks. According to witness statements, the power lines were equipped with red marker balls.

The airplane was recovered from the river two days after the accident. Its wings and cabin doors had separated from the fuselage by the time of recovery and were not retrieved. The aileron control chains, pulleys, sprockets and cable assemblies were intact to the left and right outboard fuselage, where they had separated. The elevator control cables remained attached to the bellcrank, which was damaged. Both the elevator and rudder control cables were continuous to the empennage.

The propeller assembly remained attached to the engine. One blade’s outboard portion was bent aft about 30 degrees and exhibited a two-inch-wide by ½-inch-deep trailing edge gouge near the tip. Immediately inboard of the gouge was a ½-inch-wide by one-inch-long discoloration consistent with electrical arcing. The throttle, mixture and propeller controls were in the full-forward positions when examined. The transponder was in the “On” position, rather than the “Alt” position.

On his most recent medical certificate application, the private pilot reported total civilian flight time as 300 hours, with 35 hours flown within the preceding six months. After the accident, the pilot’s flight instructor stated that the pilot was “reckless” when he flew because of his habit of low-level flying. The pilot’s father added that his son “was in the habit of flying at low altitudes along the Mississippi River.”

The pilot’s mechanic confirmed that the airplane was equipped with Mode C altitude-reporting capability. According to U.S. Naval Observatory data, the sun was approximately nine degrees above the horizon to the west-southwest (249 degrees) at the time of the accident, with sunset coming about an hour later.

Probable Cause

The NTSB determined the probable cause(s) of this accident to include: “The pilot’s decision to fly along the river at a low altitude contrary to applicable regulations and safety of flight considerations which resulted in the impact with the power lines. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s inability to see the (sic) and avoid the power lines due to their proximity to a bend in the river and the position of the sun at the time of the accident.”

The NTSB narrative added, “It is likely that the position of the sun in relation to the power lines hindered the pilot’s ability to identify the hazard as he navigated the bend in the river at low altitude. In addition, the location of the power lines relative to the river bend minimized the reaction time to avoid the lines.”

This appears to have been an accident waiting to happen, and it’s the kind of thing that gives personal aviation a bad reputation. It’s difficult for the industry to police this kind of mindset when the pilot owns the airplane. And we don’t know if the pilot was “reckless” in other endeavors, but flying close to objects—like the ground—increases our risk, even if we have relevant training and have surveyed the site. It can be Darwinian.

Aircraft Profile: Cessna 172M Skyhawk

Image: Aleksandr Markin

OEM Engine: Lycoming O-320-E2D

Empty Weight: 1335 lbs.

Maximum Gross Takeoff Weight: 2300 lbs.

Typical Cruise Speed: 115 KTAS

Standard Fuel Capacity: 42 gallons

Service Ceiling: 13,100 feet

Range: 435 NM

VS0: 44 KIAS

How Low Is ‘Too Low’?

The FAA prohibits operating an aircraft “in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.” That’s in FAR 91.13. The FAA’s rule on flying airplanes at low altitude is FAR 91.119, which has three basic parts.

First, the FAA does not want you to fly lower than “an altitude allowing, if a power unit fails, an emergency landing without undue hazard to persons or property on the surface.” Makes sense.

Over congested areas, defined as any congested area of a city, town or settlement, or over any open-air assembly of persons, the FAR says you must be at least 1000 feet above the highest obstacle within 2000 feet of the airplane. (The FAA’s rule of thumb is that “small, sparsely settled residential areas are settlements” for purposes of determining whether an area is congested.)

Elsewhere, the agency wants you at least “500 feet above the surface, except over open water or sparsely populated areas,” and no closer than 500 feet to any person, vessel, vehicle or structure, unless landing or taking off.

Jeb Burnside is the editor-in-chief of Aviation Safety magazine. He’s an airline transport pilot who owns a Beechcraft Debonair, plus the expensive half of an Aeronca 7CCM Champ.

This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Aviation Safety magazine.

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Joseph E. (Jeb) Burnside
Jeb Burnside is the editor-in-chief of Aviation Safety magazine. He’s an airline transport pilot who owns a Beechcraft Debonair, plus the expensive half of an Aeronca 7CCM Champ.


  1. The sad part about this is the pilot took an innocent passenger with him “west.” How are we to know the pilot we fly with is legal, safe, AND proficient? A friend had a restored Stinson that I really wanted to fly in. He had recently put in a “new” (still “to be defined” by the NTSB) engine and told me “we fly every Friday. You are welcome to come along.” As it happens, as a student pilot practicing another solo this particular Friday in a C152, at 100′ AGL taking off I looked down to see the Stinson taxiing to the run up area. I made a comment to the pilot about that “beautiful Stinson.” He replied “yes, it is.” 20 minutes later, he and his father were dead: engine failure of still undetermined causes and a forced landing in a heavily wooded area, 1 mile north of the runway. It could have been me, and, again, how was I to know?

  2. I and another innocent passenger once survived an 18hr trip through hell with a clown act ‘pilot’. The pilot was a coworker and fellow aviation enthusiast who owned a C-182. Turns out he was reckless, careless, all wrapped in a ‘what’s the matter you scared’, attitude. There were no regulations he didn’t think weren’t worthy of his scorn, derision and dismissal. He had no time for fuel, trip planning; deviations through restricted areas, weather, meh. Unfortunately, we only discovered this after it was too late.
    On a Saturday evening at work he tells me that he and another guy are flying to Lubbock that night, would I like to come along. The other guy’s brother was in the Air Force in Lubbock, TX, had a super expensive stereo system and his brother was to store it for him while he was away on overseas assignment. We were to transport said stereo sys back to Santa Monica.
    Piece of cake, not only yeah, ‘but hell yeah’, this was a dream come true.
    I was in love with anything aviation, read everything, had a handful of hours in C-150’s, was finishing up A&P school, crewchiefed on Cobra’s ‘in the nam’ and on occasion got some stick time in them. OTOH, for my fellow passenger this was to be his first experience in a light plane.
    We took off minutes before curfew from SMO and stopped in TUS for fuel. Somewhere along the way we were flying at over 15k ft altitude(no OX) and I had to insist he descend lower since my vision had become affected and, to me, the dash was starting to look like a Salvatore Dali painting. He did descend and we landed at LBB and napped while we waited a few hours before the brother could arrive with the stereo. Loaded up, took off probably over GW. While violating Los Alamos Restricted Area he decided to play catch the pencils as they floated in midair. As we approached the Rockies VOR reception became intermittent and we weren’t exactly sure where we were but one thing was becoming apparent, we were going to run out of fuel way before we reached PHX, our proposed refuel stop. From west to east we barely made TUS; loaded up now, probably over gross, east to west, no way. C-182’s have carb ice tendencies I learned and due to our fuel situation, flying at reduced power settings, we needed to use carb heat occasionally until it seized in partial open position. One ridgeline looks pretty much like the next and with the needles bouncing off E we landed on a dirt road, our wing just clearing a horse that was grazing in a ditch. Our landing drew a crowd of pickups before long and the attention of the Apache Police department. We had landed in Cibecue, AZ, in the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. So while our pilot went to town to wait for the gas station to open(limited hrs on Sunday) my fellow pass and I took the cowling off to see why the carb heat was stuck. The flapper was seized in the bushings and dripping hot eng oil off of the dipstick wasn’t making any difference. I asked if anyone in the crowd had any WD-40. Someone did and I traded a few packs of Marlboro’s for use of that WD-40 and a couple of cans of Coors. I was so parched and amazed that carb ice was a factor in these arid conditions. WD-40 did the trick, buttoned her up and watched as I don’t know how many gallons of mogas, siphoned out of the cop car, actually made it into our tank and how many washed down the wing onto the ground. After two trips he said he was sure that it was enough to make it to PHX, yeh. We thanked everyone and took off the way we came and flew into and out of one of the most beautiful canyons I will ever see. After a while it again began to look like we might run out of fuel before reaching PHX. We needed to get on the ground quickly but they were busy and sequenced us so again we were praying and sweating bullets. Refueled, took off and on arriving in the Palm Springs area we ran into weather; rain, reduced ceilings and some rock and roll turbulence in Banning Pass.
    We made it, obviously, but our intrepid pilot, some weeks later he dropped by my apartment. Seems he tried to land his C-182, a plane that has the nose gear stapled to a sheet metal firewall, in a mountain pasture. The Forest Service found the plane, tracked him down and told him he had x amount of time to remove it or they will do it for him. He came to ask me if there’s a way to reattach the nose gear to where he could fly it out of there. Nose gear torn off, bent prop, sudden stoppage and a dented wing from when it just missed flipping over, none of that seemed to phase him at all.
    This time the answer was,” not only no but HELL NO”.

  3. One of the great benefits of having an instrument rating is the occasional opportunity to fly along skimming the cloud tops, or perhaps the bases, safely and legally experiencing the airplane’s speed.