Social Media And Stupid Pilot Tricks

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And so another Sunday morning in a week bookended by whipsawing from skydivers smashing a hapless pilotless 182 to a popular YouTuber getting busted for low flying. On the one hand, it’s fearless feds protecting the public, on the other, it’s unelected bureaucrats abusing their enforcement authority. The appetizer for this circus was the previous week when another YouTuber had his certificates yanked for crashing another airplane under the guise of an engine failure.

If you’re having trouble keeping up, don’t feel alone. This stuff is coming at all of us at the speed of heat and the only relief might be exiting the social media that’s an undeniable accelerant. In his wildest fever dreams, I doubt if Marshall McLuhan could have envisioned any of this. But maybe I’m the one with a stunted imagination. He probably predicted it.

The dust has far from settled on the Red Bull stunt that spun out of control, literally, last Sunday. Skydiver/pilots Luke Aikins and Andy Farrington attempted to swap airplanes by exiting from same and flying to the opposite aircraft while the two pilotless airplanes were in an autopilot-controlled vertical dive. Quite a challenge it was and one they didn’t pull off. One of the airplanes entered an inverted spin, although Aikins made it into his and recovered the dive for a safe landing. The other aircraft crashed into the desert near Eloy, Arizona, under a late-deployed airframe parachute.

I’ve never been to Mars, but I have jumped at Eloy and it’s a pretty good stand-in. That’s to say that if they maneuvered over a remote area, the likelihood of one of those aircraft, with the engine shut down, as it was, recovering itself and gliding to Tucson or even a nearby house, was incalculably remote. If you’re really fraidy scared or just hated the stunt just because you hated it, that’s a plausible outrage to cling to. My conclusion is the risk was to them and was vanishingly small to anyone on the ground. They evidently had a procedure to assure the airspace was clear, but no TFR and only Eloy’s standing parachuting NOTAM and standard calls to ATC.

The larger problem for Aikins and Farrington will be that they knew leaving the airplanes momentarily pilotless would be a violation of CFR 91.105. They asked the FAA for an exemption and were denied, but went ahead with the stunt anyway. On Friday, Aikins posted on his Instagram account that he knew the exemption was denied, but didn’t tell the rest of the team. Whether that’s true or not won’t let Farrington off the hook. When you’re pilot in command, you’re supposed to know all the regulations governing that flight and you can’t depend on someone else doing it for you. As pilots, we like having the ultimate, final authority. But that axe has two blades. Ultimate authority is ultimate responsibility.

If the FAA decides to enforce, I don’t know if Aikins and Farrington can construct a convincing defense that all the precautions they took qualified them for the exemption and the FAA erred in not granting it. I have a problem with that. It reeks of arrogant entitlement and selective compliance in the face of documented denial. Aikins and Farrington and Trevor Jacob, who did the Taylorcraft bailout, may be in more enforcement hot water than even I imagined. In this video segment, AOPA Air Safety Institute’s Richard McSpadden explored the legal ramifications and they’re not pretty.

We need to get real here. In this country, we have maximum freedom to do with our airplanes almost what we want, when we want. If we agree to basic training and licensing requirements, we also agree to a rules framework which we accept in exchange for avoiding utter chaos. People whine about the horrible burden of regulation, but with infrequent exceptions—I’ll get to that—it’s just that, whining. Complying in this circumstance wasn’t unreasonable and not doing so may have been driven by a streaming deal with Hulu. [Insert McLuhan ghost here.]

There’s another complication. Skydiving, by FAA agreement, is self-policing with oversight by the board of the United States Parachute Association, which Luke Aikins sits on. In skydiving, we have what are called Basic Safety Requirements, the very first one of which says this: “For skydives made within the U.S. and its territories and possessions, no skydive may be made in violation of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations.” I’ve already heard from several skydiving friends wondering if the board will look the other way on this incident. If they do, they’ll show that trust in USPA oversight is misplaced. No one wants more from the FAA and none at all invites disaster. So, one ill-advised, intemperate judgment gives us a Hobson’s choice. GA doesn’t have many friends in the FAA and skydiving has even fewer in GA. This won’t win friends and influence people, if I might channel Dale Carnegie for a moment.

Now, to the Trent Palmer case. First, a cut out. If it had anything directly to do with Palmer’s high profile on YouTube, it’s not apparent. He has a credible channel mostly focused on outback flying. It’s good stuff and not edge case YouTube idiocy. As he explains in this video, the core of the case is, by invitation, he made a low inspection pass at a friend’s property with the possible intent of landing. A neighbor recorded the pass on a security camera and complained to the FAA.

After an investigation and a hearing, the FAA proposed to suspend Palmer for 210 days. The case simmered for more than two years, eventually concluding in an administrative hearing in which an administrative law judge reduced the suspension to 60 days. Palmer is appealing. The legal logic here is contorted. Ultimately, it was a violation of 91.119, the minimum safe altitude regs. The FAA alleged he came within 500 feet of a structure without the intent of landing.

Because the area had no windsock, markers or lights, the ALJ arbitrarily determined that it wasn’t a suitable landing site so he couldn’t have landed, thus no relief from the 500 feet. Yet the FAA publishes guidelines on landing at sites that aren’t airports and thousands of such landings happen every year on open fields, sandbars, frozen lakes, farm fields, roads and even glaciers. Palmer said he followed the procedure in the FAA’s own ops guide.  

He points out, rightly, that if this decision stands, it could create a precedent jeopardizing STOL and recreational flights into backcountry areas. Some of these have charted runways, but many do not. Under the ALJ’s logic, you couldn’t drag the field as the FAA recommends, without facing legal jeopardy. You’d have to land to gain the 500-foot exception and face physical jeopardy. This is directly counter to the FAA’s off-airport guidance.

This is idiocy.

Early in my flying career, a complaint call like this would be handled by a friendly phone call from the FAA. In some cases, it still is. That’s what should have happened here; the proverbial word to the wise and not thousands of dollars worth of enforcement man-hours to no one’s gain. They could better put that money to use figuring out what to do with the plane swap case. Meanwhile, the message to Planet YouTube—and looking at you Red Bull—is maybe see if there’s an adult anywhere in your orbit.

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52 COMMENTS

  1. As usual, you’ve hit all the nails on the head with this article!
    The Trent Palmer ruling doesn’t just call off airport landings into question. What about all the thousands of FAA-registered private grass strips which have no windsock, lights, or markings? There is no FAA regulation which requires such equipment.
    And if I fly a practice ILS to minimums and then go missed? By this judge’s logic, I never intended to land yet got below 500 feet, so that’s a violation!
    Do ALJ rulings create precedent within the FAA legal system? If so, then we could have some real issues soon!

  2. Being grounded while waiting on common parts is a much bigger story then a bunch of clicks on youtube. More and more supply chain shortages are grounding more and more aircraft. If you can’t buy consumable parts, components or aircraft there is NO flying. This is going to be a rough summer for certified aircraft.

    The FAA has been violating Alaska Pilots for landing in non-populated places for decades. Get use to it, If a bureaucrat in the FAA pick you for a violation it’s a one sided battle. An NTSB judge told me that signing your pilot’s license removes you from having Constitutional legal rights. That’s why congress passed the “Pilot’s Bill of Rights”. The Bob Hoover case has already set the precedent for the FAA to do whatever they feel like that day. The FAA is running wild on emotions and Airmen certificate trophy’s on the wall is more important then promoting Aviation.

    “Interpretation of Regulation” . “The Administrator does not interpret the regulation that way”. Watch the movie – Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot of the 2009’s “Miracle on the Hudson”. The FAA wanted to mount Capt. Sullenberger’s license on the wall for multiple regulation violations. In his case the people’s emotions overwhelmed the FAA’s emotions. Cherry-Picking the Facts.

    • “No plan of centralization has ever been adopted which did not result in bureaucracy, tyranny, inflexibility, reaction, and decline. Of all forms of government, those administered by bureaus are about the least satisfactory to an enlightened and progressive people. Being irresponsible they become autocratic, and being autocratic they resist all development. Unless bureaucracy is constantly resisted it breaks down representative government and overwhelms democracy. It is the one element in our institutions that sets up the pretense of having authority over everybody and being responsible to nobody.” Calvin Coolidge, 1926

      • Don’t forget ignorant. Obviousy the administrative law judge had no clue about the ramifications of his ruling in the off-airport landing case. By the way, the mechanism by which these bureaucrats rule us was set up by….wait for it…..our elected representatives. They didn’t want to write the rules, or didn’t have the manpower to write the rules so they write a bill to delegate their own authority to an executive branch bureau. It’s called Administrative Law, and it’s been upheld many times despite the Constitution clearly stating that the laws shall emanate from the Congress.

  3. There is another problem. Litter. Leaving toxic materials on public or private land is illegal. Some one needs to clean up the mess. The area around Eloy is desert but is used by many of us and we do not like it being treated like a garbage dump. Admittedly airplanes are not the major problem but the attitude of those two, widely shared, is the major problem.

    • BINGO, Martin !! THAT’s the problem. Just because no one on the ground was injured doesn’t mean the principals could guarantee that beforehand. So we’re walking a tightrope here. On the one hand, we don’t want too much Regulation — we want liberty — while on the other we don’t want the ‘Wild West’ in aviation, either. Doing stupid stuff guarantees the former. And, left to uneducated (in aviation matters) Administrative Law judges, over reactions are sure to follow. The Kissimmee thing wound up causing a huge negative impact on the E-AB community, for example.

  4. FAR 91.119 needs to eliminate the unnecessary word “necessary”; it just confuses non-pilot lawyers and judges, when an addle-brained ALJ doesn’t understand the FAA’s own teachings. I sure shouldn’t be going out on a limb to call the ALJ a “non-pilot”; that should be crystal clear.

    As for the pilot violating 91.105; he already broke the “law,” fine him or whatever, but adding more laws will have no effect on improving pilot behavior or public safety; it will only create more law-breakers.

  5. Let the Taylorcraft guy fry. Red Bull bite the bullet. But with respect to Trent Palmer: We have a 2,000′ private dirt strip here on the farm. No lights. No wind sock. No markings. So it is news to me that without these physical accessories any landing or clearing pass I do could be illegal in any way. Our field is shown on the sectional map too. Sometimes the field is too muddy, there are horseback riders in the vicinity or farm equipment working in the fields on each side of the strip. So if I understand what the ALJ is saying those times where I waive off a landing and proceed to the local county airport I am in violation. Whereas if I proceed to try a landing where I may flip over in the mud, spook horses with riders or risk colliding with a tractor crossing my path then at least I am no longer in violation of 91.119. It is a good legal crash in accordance with FARs. In other words it’s preferable for me or somebody else to die attempting the landing than for some unelected bureaucrat to have to do the paperwork had I decided to divert. The whole time this interpretation flying in the face of decades of the FAA’s own landing guidance. This is right up there with 15 years ago when the FAA was violating non-STC installations of shoulder harness seat belts in legacy aircraft. The FAA’s stance, since relaxed due to outcry, was that the occupants of an aircraft should die in an accident rather than have un-approved shoulder harnesses requiring an onerous approval process for something that used to be field approved old hat. Same type of bureaucratic idiocy. Makes me want to go watch that “Idiocracy” movie from years back.

    • It would also seem to make the PTS (and presumably ACS, when they get to it) for the helicopter private pilot exam illegal, since it includes a “confined area” takeoff/landing, and one of the tasks requires making a low pass recon, the result of which may be a determination that it’s not a good place to land.

      And this might include Alton Bay, the ice runway. There are no lights there (though I think they do set up a windsock), and landing there requires flying within 500′ of people and structures.

  6. Just to play Devil’s Advocate for a moment. Is there another side to the Trent Palmer story that he is not telling? If the FAA started a social media channel telling their side of stories there would be hell to pay. “Privacy”, “Rights”, “Intrusion”…. etc etc.

    And while we have known for years that the FAA/NTSB/ALJ side of things can be heavily weighted in their favor – there is now the Pilots’ Bill of Rights. Mr Palmer doesn’t reference his or his attorney’s actions in this area or if the proper notifications under the PBOR were issued.

    It’s never cut and dried, there are always two sides to every story and the size of the heap of loose change left in the middle varies greatly on a case by case basis.

    • Yes

      It appears that it was a complaint from a neighbor with webcam video that set off this Trent Palmer investigative action.

      I would want to know details of the “low pass” such as speed, power setting and exit from the pass before forming an opinion on the FAA’s action and the ALJ ruling.

      All GA pilots should be aware of their noise footprint at the ground level whether doing low passes, performing aerobatics (very noisy on the ground even at 3000+ ft. agl) and when departing or arriving at airports located in populated areas

      • If I’m not mistaken, the recon was over a radio control flying field, not an uncontrolled non tower airport. No information was given whether or not this rc field was legally sanctioned and under insurance guidelines from the modelers AMA (Academy of Modell Aeronautics). It’s plausible for the neighbor not friendly to model aircraft used the opportunity to video the low flying aircraft then filed the complaint to the FAA that followed up with their action against the pilot.

        Years ago, I, along with many hobbyists started flying rc model helicopters in an undeveloped NYC park that wasn’t designated for any radio control models. Occasionally, the local police would stop by and watch then went away without complaining or halting or activities. Mind you, this was under KLGA airspace. Several times during these impromptu meets, a local news helicopter flew by. One time during an aerobic practice of a model helicopter, the news copter gave chase once around the field then went on his way much to the delight of every hobbyist. He was well below 500 feet in a densely populated area. No harm, no foul. News helicopters usually hover several hundred feet if not a thousand feet plus when covering major incidents while staying away from heavy aircraft traffic patterns between KJFK and KLGA. NYC police helicopters fly below 800 feet when looking in a circular pattern.

        Perhaps the FAA should have issued an alert and warning as sufficient notice to the pilot, placating the neighbor annoyed at model aircraft noise and let the pilot be aware of a minor transgression.

  7. With all the lawlessness going on in the US, we need to hold onto some structure in my opinion. The Red Bull guys asked for permission and were denied – then thumbed their noses at authority. While they managed risk appropriately, their lack of respect for authority should be addressed in my opinion. That means negative consequences for them.

    The FAA made a mistake in the case of Trent. Once they did that, they may be slow to realize and reticent to change their position. It is not the end of the world for Trent, but may cause downstream problems for others as you point out.

    Very nicely written article sir.

    • I assume you meant they managed physical risk. There is other risk, public opinion, FAA and NTSB involvement for example. These risks were neglected and unwelcome personality characteristics revealed (they “thumbed their noses at authority”).

    • “With all the lawlessness going on in the US, we need to hold onto some structure in my opinion.”

      Yes. Like punishing those who actually hurt others (e.g., rioters and looters and thieves). My thrust wouldn’t be towards people who arguably don’t endanger or hurt anyone else.

  8. Self aggrandizing, self promotion, product promotion at all cost, disrespect for safety, disrespect for authority…..what is the RED BULL message? “Drink Red Bull, do any stupid pilot trick you can think of”.

    91, 135, 121 are written in blood. We don’t need any more regulations (or blood). We need less Red Bull.

    Book ‘em Dano. Throw away the key.

  9. The “except as necessary for takeoff and landing” reg is violated constantly and seldom enforced. At any of our local airport Saturday breakfasts at the various surrounding airports, it is not unusual for the arrivals to do a high speed (if a Champ has such a thing) pass down the runway with a pull up and bank at the end that usually enters the acro maneuver definition category. When you do this you’re paying your money and taking your chances. Fortunately, even if a FSDO person is around, they look the other way…usually. But be aware you are wrong. And if you try to excuse it by saying it was just a go around from the intended landing, you are then in worse trouble trying to explain why you couldn’t figure out that cruise throttle and cruise speed is not a good approach to a landing. Have fun…but if you get nailed, it’s on you.

  10. Trent Palmer discussed his situation thoroughly and professionally on his YouTube channel. He was not snarky or disparaging to any of the regulators who have turned what could have been a simple phone conversation into a dragged-out official transaction probably costing high personnel costs. At one point, there was a picture of an angry-looking non-pilot female who was somewhere in the chain of command of the regulatory agencies. Reading between the lines, one infers that she is the cause of the delay and the initial suspension of 210 days.

    That’s my opinion, and I’m the only one qualified to give it.

  11. The administrative person was confused about aviation.

    How low is wise if you are checking for animals, rocks, potholes, wetness, …….?

    The 737 that circled the runway to check for animals before landing at Hudson Hope B.C. was not low, but runway had been checked for condition earlier (paved, good condition, ground stable, well drained), and had some use by local pilots. But not fenced. Good vision angle from circling rather than over the nose.

    In contrast to strips the local pilot who flew a pilot and I into that airport from Fort St. John, who often flew into new strips for oil drilling rigs. (I noted he was good at estimating height and distance of obstacles. Later I drove to the airport to watch the actual landing of the 737 charter flight.)

    • Elsewhere, on a tour of community airstrips using a small twin we quickly wised up – do a low pass, if there was standing water beside the runway move on. (As the runway would not be stable throughout the year, for the big bird we were evaluating those strips for.)

      The local pilot who flew us around was very good at map reading. Just water and trees, few real hills, in northeast MB and northwest ON. He did have navaids, at least NDBs, but was being careful.

  12. It’s probably no accident that the title of 14 CFR 91.3 places the word “responsibility” BEFORE the word “authority.” As PIC we’re often quick to claim the authority, while maybe placing too little emphasis on the responsibility part. I’m reminded of politicians who often admit to being responsible for some action, then profusely back-pedal when the time comes to pay up. As kids, weren’t we taught that being responsible for our actions means that when you really did something wrong you need to fess up and pay the piper?

  13. GA enjoys a degree of benign neglect, which we put at risk every time we poke the bear. These guys getting famous for poking the bear create problems for the rest of us. Stop! Don’t fly under bridges. Don’t buzz your buddies house. Keep your shenanigans confined to those airport which the FAA studiously avoids, or those pastures miles from the nearest house. Easy peezy.

  14. Palmer should have been handled with a friendly call. The other two should have the book thrown at them. Also, the Forest Service and the state of California should seek criminal sanctions against the Taylorcraft jerk.

    • Red Bull. If you petition the for a waiver FAA & they say no, then doing it anyway is profoundly stupid. What does anyone think the FAA would do after being defied? Red Bull isn’t cheap. They could have crossed the border into Mexico. It wasn’t that far.

      Generally, I hate to see the destruction of a perfectly good airplane. That is nearly criminal in this market.

      Palmer. He had a previous run-in with the FAA over wheel skiing on Lake Tahoe while carrying a passenger. California & Nevada fought a war over Lake Tahoe, everything that happens there has been contentious ever since.

      Also, I remember some FAA involvement in his tossing out a drone or something over this same RC field, but that was a long time ago.

      I don’t like the “prescident ” angle of this decision either. But clearly there is a lack of judgment (or at least awareness of public perceptions) angle. If nothing else, palmer should realize that hill hopping & river running back in the remote public lands are different from such activities where non-pilots congregate.

      Regardless of whether or not the homeowner actually owned the airspace over their land, they didn’t move out into the country to not have near total control over their environment. I can imagine they thought if they don’t nip this activity in the bud, that they’d likely have to deal with more than RC flights on their neighbor’s property. Not an unreasonable assumption.

      In all these cases, in addition to ssafety, the FAA—like all agencies—is trying to balance citizens with competing legitimate interests.

    • And for some people the ‘not friendly’ private chat.

      Decades ago a Learjet landed on the looong straightaway of the car racing track southwest of Kent WA, before racing started. After the races it departed. I thought that was cool to see.

      Years later in an aviation forum a person responded to my story by saying that an FAA person ‘had words’ with the pilot, as in “Don’t you do that again.” 😉

      (I haven’t looked at length of that looong straightaway which included drag strip and runout length for hot dragsters. There was clearway at west end before trees that were of regular height (not mature Douglas Firs). Airplane arrived from that end and departed toward it.

      • Less than a mile long, judging from track map, given the 2.24 mile road racing track which loops around each end.
        I don’t remember trees and terrain to the east for go-around, track is on high ground with valley beside it.

  15. Luke Aikens and Andy Farrington only operated their ‘Cessna 182 Autonomous Drones’ for a matter of minutes and it’s a big deal. The FAA wouldn’t grant a waiver for their proven Autonomous Drones. Good luck getting the FAA onboard with Delivery Autonomous Drones buzzing around sky scrapers.

    After this many comments and nobody brings up helicopters operating anywhere and everywhere within 500 feet of people and property with immunity. If nobody cares about them then maybe the eVTOL Air-Taxi stands a chance but Trent Palmer doesn’t… Cherry-Picking the Facts.

  16. Our newest, largest, most advanced and most powerful telescope ever — the James Webb — 1 million miles away from Earth, is set to peer into deep space and the long history of the universe. Maybe it’s pointed in the wrong direction…

    Between self-sabotaging ourselves in GA with ego-driven stunts focused only on the adrenaline-rush crowd (and money, of course), and increasing public attitudes on snitch-first Nimbyism concerning anything GA related, maybe the scope can help us find out why we insist remaining tied to our own maladaptive aviation whipping post that is splintering and cracking in-tune with our bruises.

    At least the flood of applicants in high schools and universities across the nation wanting to sign up for STEM courses this fall as a result of our misaligned efforts should give us some satisfaction, right?

  17. I fly a seaplane. does this mean when I examine a potential lake for a landing spot and find some reason not long enough into the wind, obstacles in the water, wind the wrong way, too many crazy personal watercraft I will have violated a regulation?

    • Minimum safe altitudes vary depending on where you are flying. Over the lake, just don’t get closer than 500 ft to anything. But….we all know that already. My seaplane time and rating was in a Lake (airplane that is). Fun, fun.

      Over other than congested areas. An altitude of 500 feet above the surface, except over open water or sparsely populated areas. In those cases, the aircraft may not be operated closer than 500 feet to any person, vessel, vehicle, or structure.

    • Right. Mishap in BC some months ago when a float plane taking off hit a sandbar.

      Pilot was familiar with that harbour, somehow did not realize existence of sandbar.
      (Sandbars come and go with storm action.)

  18. It’s not just flying and pilots where the bureaucrats abritrarily abuse the public. There are countless examples of schools and FBO’s who are harassed monthly by the FAA. They crawl through the school’s files diligently until they find their version of some obscure violation. Or they make up their own new requirement abritrarily on the spot. And they won’t say what needs to be done to fix it, saying that’s not their responsibility. This goes on and on until they revoke the school’s license. Or threaten to. Often, this goes up the chain at both the school and FAA until some reason prevails after everyone has incurred multiples of costs. It’s impossible to remove these abusive FAA folks, they just get transferred around to spread their mess. They are anal retentive, unreasonable, unreachable, and unfixable. This is based on my personal knowledge, not speculation.