Buzz Jobs: A Frank Discussion

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When it comes to preventing low-flying accidents, the "just don't do it" method of prevention hasn't worked. It's time to talk openly about what's involved with low flying.

An integral part of the various jobs I've held for the last 37 years has involved reviewing aircraft accident reports and looking at data generated from them. During that time, what the NTSB euphemistically refers to as "maneuvering," has remained in the top three causes of fatal accidents with usually about 40 percent of general aviation fatalities lumped into that category. A healthy portion of "maneuvering" accidents involved pilots who were flying low and either hit something or stalled and spun in while pulling up from a low pass. It's the "Hey, y'all, watch this!" general aviation crash that has been occurring with distressing regularity as far back as there are records.

What concerns me is that the powers that be have looked at the low-flying fatality data and consistently drawn the wrong conclusion about how prevent those crashes. Their approach has been to tell pilots—those folks who self-select for aviation because they are risk-takers, love speed and have at least a mild allergy toward authority—just don't do it. Don't fly low.

The FAA published regulations specifying minimum altitudes and that pilots never fly closer than 500 feet (vertically or horizontally) from any person, vessel, vehicle or structure.

The lack of success of the "keep 'em ignorant/just say no" approach is reflected in the fact the rate has remained nearly constant—about 10 percent of the total crashes. That those 10 percent of total crashes can account for 40 percent of all fatalities is because hitting something when you're going fast or spinning in has a nasty tendency to be lethal.

Let's Talk About It

It's time to start talking openly about low flying. It's time to drag the subject into the open because it's something virtually every pilot wants to do. And if there's one thing that has been proven time and time again in aviation, when a pilot tries something new for the first time without having either thought long and hard about it or taken some dual, the odds are staggeringly high that he's not going to do it very well.

Let's be honest—flying low, within about 200 feet of the ground, is a hell of a lot of fun. You experience the speed of the airplane, the wonderful, gut-level excitement that so many want and is what caused them to learn to fly. Flying five feet above the ground is a sensory rush without any true comparison. The average person who can afford to rent a Cessna 172 can experience what the world looks like at 140 mph by flying very low. Most folks can't arrange to drive a car that will go that fast in a location where you can cause it to go that fast. And even if you could, the experience in the car is not nearly as powerful or all-encompassing as in the airplane—booming along in all the glories of the third dimension, barely above the dirt.

Going fast near the ground is exciting on a level that is hard to imagine without experiencing it. It is also tremendously risky. However, just telling a pilot not to do it is about as effective as telling waterfall to shut itself off for a few hours. Good grief, look at the number of hits on YouTube videos showing airplanes flying low at high speed and the recent fad of "skimming/water skiing"—touching the main gear of tailwheel airplanes to the surface of the water in a lake or river. (Yes, there have already been some unpleasant crashes from that as well.)

Human desires are forces of nature. They are powers that must be approached with an appropriate level of respect, otherwise they will steamroller the best of intentions. For our aviation educators and regulators to fail to talk with pilots openly about what is involved in flying low/conducting buzz jobs is to ignore something that is incredibly attractive. If they think that if they don't talk about it, then pilots won't think about it, they're nuts. Let's admit that the need for speed is a hugely powerful desire and spend some time talking frankly about it to pilots—who happen to be pretty smart people—with that understanding.

The Typical Scenario

Let's look at a typical scenario—one that is so popular and has resulted in so many deaths that it is almost a cliché: a very low altitude fly past of a friend/relative's house to show off the airplane and how cool we are to be flying it.

Let's do it—we'll get a speed fix because we're down low and we've got a decent tailwind. Yep, that's it, we get a huge rush and we show the world we are too cool for words. I'm in.

Let's also say that we have enough responsibility and maturity that before we go whistling off to accomplish the plan; we'll dissect it and see if it is something we can pull off without killing ourselves. First, we want to fly low; probably below 200 above the ground. All right, we'll be brutally honest, more like 10 feet. Have we ever flown that low before? Sure, scores of times, in fact, every time we've landed an airplane. Yet, we also admit there are some trifling differences—whenever we've been at that altitude we've been approaching or over a runway, in airspace that has been cleared of obstructions. All we've had to worry about was lining up with the runway and figuring out at what altitude to flare and then sorting out the touchdown. And, we'll admit, that low altitude bit of flying is a very high workload event; we don't have a lot of attention to spare for dealing with other things, such as looking out for and avoiding obstructions. We also are flying pretty slowly, at approach speed. With a headwind we're usually not going a heck of a lot faster than we have driven a car.

That brings up the next question. Have we ever flown at 10 feet above the ground, in level flight, at cruise speed? Chances are that wasn't part of the training process when we got our certificate. Let's first consider it over a runway. In the ubiquitous Cessna 172, we'll be traveling about 140 MPH across the ground in a no wind situation. Chances are good we've never gone that fast on the ground. Having the world pass by at that clip is a new experience—we'll need some time to take it in and adjust.

Now, add a tailwind, 20 MPH or so, and now we're clipping along, over the ground at 160 MPH. That's getting to NASCAR speeds. Oh, yeah, how good are we at holding altitude plus or minus 100 feet? Do we really want to go try to maintain 10 feet AGL? Especially as we have never experienced seeing runway lights and taxiways whip by this fast. OK, the speed is bothering us, so we'll pull the power back a little to slow down. But we don't dare look inside at the tachometer, do we? A little flinch and we're on the ground, eh? Can we make a power reduction of the right amount, and then retrim the airplane to compensate for the lower speed, all without diverting our attention from the outside world?

Let's keep adding variables to make this like the real world. At the end of the runway, we're going to pitch up and climb away from terra firma. With the ground zooming by us, we feel as if we're going a million miles per hour, so we really pull the nose up to take advantage of that speed in the climb. Only, once we think about it, we're only at cruise airspeed or a little below (if we did slow down because of the discomfort with the groundspeed).

The Big Pull Up

What happens when we make a big pull up while cruising at altitude? We get a nice zoom climb for a short time and then the airspeed rapidly goes away, doesn't it? We've got to get full power in and put the nose down to normal climb attitude in order to keep from stalling the airplane. It's the same down low—except that we're all exhilarated by the groundspeed and have trouble accepting that this airplane is truly only a modest performer. So, if we don't get the nose back down to normal climb attitude and apply full power, we're going to stall. While still pretty low. And probably with the ball out to one side. Without being prepared for the stall.

Which is precisely how a lot of buzz jobs terminate—an  aggressive pull up into a stall, incipient spin and a steeply nose down ground impact.

Thus far we've learned that we probably don't want to slow down when we are flying low. That's because we've got to climb eventually, and that the laws of aerodynamics don't change when the pilot gets excited with a first whiff of perceived groundspeed, so the pull up has to be appropriate.

Let's throw one more bit of realism into the scenario: when we pull up after the low pass, we've got to look back at the house to see everyone come running out and get excited because we want the feedback to confirm that we're way, way cool. Yet, when is the last time we did a pull up while looking back and down? Can we judge the attitude of the airplane? Can we keep track of the airspeed and whether the ball is centered? Can we recover from a stall if we enter it while looking over our shoulder to the left at something on the ground? Can we do it right, the very first time, without ever having practiced it? Bet your life on it?


Now, let's add obstructions. And because real life is always a final exam, any and all obstructions are fair game; whether we can see them or not. Houses may have antennas or satellite disks on or beside them, trees may or may not have leaves, making them difficult to spot quickly and, as every aerial applicator pilot knows, power lines are often absolutely invisible and they get strung in strange places. Have we thought about what happens if we take a power line with the windshield? How about with the landing gear? Or the prop? (Those are not rhetorical questions—you're down low where the power lines live. Answers: windshield—it's going to break and the line may decapitate those in at least the front seats. If the line breaks before head removal, we are going to have to find out if we can fly an airplane without a windshield, which provides so much drag that the airplane may not hold altitude. Landing gear—probably going to trip us and pitch us into the ground in a matter of seconds, we may or may not have time to utter a last explicative. Prop—if we take it dead center, we may cut the line and have a fighting chance to survive. If it's one of the big cross country power lines, we're screwed.)

So, there we are; 10 feet above the ground, over an area we have not surveyed for obstructions, where no one has taken any action to clear the airspace for airplanes flying through; doing our best to hold altitude, which is taking almost all of our concentration; hoping that the power setting is okay, but not daring to look; trying to sort out the pitch trim, which is out of whack because we just dived down to this height from about 1,000 feet AGL and we're really doing more like 180 MPH across the ground because of the dive and the tailwind and the reduced drag of ground effect. Now we're into open-wheel racer speed territory. Do you think we've got a 100 percent chance of spotting and avoiding things that are hiding out there waiting to bring down the airplane? Don't make me laugh.

Just for grins, let's recount some of the things pilots have hit while flying low:

Power lines. Unless the lines are silhouetted in front of a bright blue sky, they are effectively impossible to see from any distance at all. The only hope is to spot the poles, which may be difficult because they can be in trees or on hill tops and the lines are strung completely across the valley we are in as we follow the twists and turns of the river. A married acquaintance of mine removed a wing from a Civil Air Patrol T-34 by hitting a power line while flying low down a river while making steep turns to follow it as he was showing off for the young woman in the back seat. They both died.

Antennas and towers and tower guy wires. A few years back a Cessna 404 hit a 150-foot tall HAM radio antenna at the 100-foot level. It smashed the left side of the nose back to the wing spar, killing the pilot in command. The pilot in the right seat managed to fly the very drafty, highly-modified airplane some miles—all the way to the final accident site. A good friend of mine pulled up over a house and hit the TV antenna on top of it. A piece of the antenna stuck between the horizontal stabilizer and the elevator, so he had very little control and almost no time to see if he could learn to fly the new control system. He didn't have enough time or control, and went into high tension lines, which arrested the airplane's travel. It hung up in them and then caught fire and my friend burned to death.

Ag Pilots

Even assuming we can spot an obstruction ahead of us, how much experience have we had judging pull ups over obstacles or making turns away from them while approaching at 140 miles per hour or so, especially downwind? As a high school student I had a summer job working for a crop duster. I spent each day waving a day-glo orange flag so the pilot could see where to line up for the next pass. I watched professional ag pilots fly with their wheels six inches over crops and then judge their pull ups at the ends of the fields so as to avoid hitting power lines and trees. And every so often I watched those professionals hit those power lines and trees as they misjudged a pull up. It sunk in to me that if the men and women who make their living flying at low altitude sometimes hit things, what are the chances for the amateurs?

I kept track of the ag pilots I crewed for in high school. Every single one of them crashed. Every one. Each was a low-flying event. Fortunately, because they were in airplanes built to crash and were wearing helmets, they all survived.

Ag pilots are a cautious, cynical, alert lot. They know that flying at low altitude is risky, so they do all they can to protect themselves and reduce the risk before they step into the airplane. They fly airplanes built for crashing, they wear helmets, they find out all they can about the stuff that they might hit where they are going to be flying and they don't fly low over a field on a whim unless they know it well. Seems pretty logical to me.

The military requires low flying as part of their missions. They teach it. They teach it very carefully and in controlled circumstances. And every year several military pilots die when flying low in training or practice. So what are the odds for the general aviation pilot who decides that it's time to go buzz the house of the girl or boyfriend?

I'm not going to talk any more about the regs—I suspect every pilot who hit something while flying low had read them. They weren't deterred. I will note that if you do fly low where someone can see you, gets a cell phone video of you and files a complaint, that the FAA will use that as evidence against you. The FAA will also subpoena and use all of the data from GPS devices in your airplane against you.

Pilots are intelligent people—it seems to me that if they make the decision to fly low they have a better chance of surviving if that decision was the result of mature reflection, examination of the area from the ground before hand and some dual instruction rather than after just emoting, "Man, that looks like fun" and going for it.

Rick Durden is a CFII, holds an ATP with Cessna Citation and Douglas DC-3 type ratings and is the author of The Thinking Pilot's Flight Manual or How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols. 1 & 2.