The Pilot's Lounge #132: Why Flying Is Such A Buzz

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The Pilot's Lounge

Things have been kind of busy, so my visits to the Pilot's Lounge at the virtual airport have been carried out at low cruise. I was present long enough recently to hear a student describing to his instructor what he had learned after having some difficulty with crosswind landings. She listened patiently as his recital made it clear that he had drawn the wrong conclusion from the experience. She was starting to walk him through the approach to landing in hopes of getting his thought processes pointed in the appropriate direction for future success in airplane control as I went out the door.

It was later that evening that the concept of looking at data and coming to precisely the wrong conclusion came to mind. I was reviewing accidents which were pigeonholed in the "maneuvering" phase of flight by the NTSB. That always gives me pause as "maneuvering" is usually the euphemism for low flying or buzzing and a crash due to loss of control or running into something. "Maneuvering" accidents make up pretty close to 10% of the total number of accidents, which doesn't sound like a big deal until you look at the next data point – they account for 40% of fatalities in general aviation airplanes. That's huge.

The problem is that the powers that be in aviation have, in my opinion, reached the wrong conclusion as to how to go about reducing the number of accidents that result when someone decides to toss an airplane around down low. For years the FAA, safety organizations and flight instructors have looked at the data on crashes from low flying and buzz jobs gone wrong and reached the conclusion that the way to stop them is to solemnly tell pilots "don't do it". The fact that the percentage of accidents attributed to "maneuvering" hasn't changed much over the last decade or so is a pretty convincing demonstration of just how effective the abstinence, or "keep 'em ignorant" approach has worked. Let's look at the situation.

First, pilots consist of a tiny fraction of one percent of our population. We are a self-selecting portion as years and years of studies have pointed out - pilots are far more willing to take risks than a person who desires to spend his or her life beetling across the surface of the planet. Pilots also attracted to speed, it is at the heart of aviation – "faster, higher, further" wasn't coined nearly 100 years ago without reason. "I feel the need for speed" in the movie Topgun hasn't trickled down to be heard throughout aviation because of an elegant internal rhyme scheme.

Flying at altitude is a wonderful thing to do for reasons that could take days to fully list. It does, however, lack one very significant something important to pilots: unless a cloud is very near for reference, there is virtually no sensation of speed. On a smooth day, it often feels as if the airplane has been hung from a string and the world is slowly rotating underneath.

Flying low, within about 200 feet of the ground, means being able to experience the speed of the airplane, to feel that gut-level excitement that sucks so many in to flying airplanes. 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; s/he probably cannot conveniently jump through the hoops necessary to get in a car that will go that fast and drive it on a track where it can go that fast. And even if s/he 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.

We have to face it: going fast near the ground is hugely exciting on a level that is hard to imagine without experiencing it. It is tremendous fun. It is hugely risky. However, simply telling a pilot not to do it is about as effective as telling waterfall to shut itself off for a few hours.

Human desires are forces of nature and 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 students in detail about what is involved in flying low or conducting the infamous buzz job; to ignore something that is incredibly attractive to a tremendous number of pilots and then think that if they don't talk about it, pilots won't think about it, is foolish.

To believe that limiting a pilot's exposure to low flying to a "just say no" lecture will prevent maneuvering crashes is to live in a fantasy world. That the maneuvering accident rate stays pretty much the same year after year is testimony to how effective refusing to educate has been. We have been successful in cutting down drug use among kids through detailed education programs that teach intelligently about the effects of drugs, why can't we do the same with low flying?

Let's start out by being honest: it is exciting and a certain percentage of pilots are going to seriously consider trying it at least once. Speed provides a lot of stimulus to certain pleasure centers of the brain, in fact, according to folks who know about that sort of thing, drugs that we outlaw as dangerous act on some of the very same areas. We know how addictive drugs can be and how powerful human desire for the effect they provide can be. Let's admit that the need for speed is a hugely powerful desire and spend some time talking to pilots with that understanding.

So let's look at a typical scenario, one that is so popular and has resulted in so many deaths that it is almost a clich้: 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. As an added attraction, we'll get a speed fix because we are 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 is one of those 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, and with a headwind we were usually not going a heck of a lot faster than we have sometimes 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 see what's involved with doing so. 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 that we'll have to spend some time adjusting to because we are human.

Now, let's 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, which some folks consider pretty fast. 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).

What happens when we make a big pullup 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 there and put the nose back 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. Oh, yes, and closed casket funerals.

Thus far we've learned that we don't want to slow down when we are flying low, 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. And, oh yeah, 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. But, 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 have antennas 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 so I'll answer them: windshield – it's going to break and the line may decapitate those in at least the front seats, even 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, which is getting into open wheel racer speed territory, and we think we've got a chance to try and spot and avoid running into 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 are the big killer, because 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 are 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 off of a Civil Air Patrol T-34 by hitting a power line while flying low down a river, making steep turns to follow it, showing off for the young woman in the back seat. They both died.

Then there are antennas and towers and tower guy wires - 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 but hit the TV antenna on top of it. Apparently, part 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.

Even assuming we can spot an obstruction ahead of us, how much experience have we had judging pull ups over obstacles or turns away from them while approaching at 140 miles per hour or so, especially downwind? Can we do it right, the very first time? I was lucky to get a good education in flying low starting at age 16 when I was working as what was called a "flag boy" for a crop duster. I stood along the edges of corn or soybean fields with a large day-glo orange flag to show the pilot 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 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 was trained in low flying by some of those same pilots; starting in a Piper J-3. The first time I rode, as one flew us across a field at 80 mph, a foot above the crop I was certain we were going a million miles an hour. I was in serious sensory overload. The corn was going by so fast I couldn't focus on it, the airplane was bucking in the turbulence of the hot day and I could not have sorted out when to start our pull up at the end of the field if someone had put a gun to my head.

Over time, I learned how to fly low and judge the pull up and set power by feel and I got my commercial certificate and started flying those same crop dusters. Until my dad found out and stopped me (hey, I was 18). I wasn't happy about being stopped; I liked flying low. However, 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 a lot of 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've purposely left any discussion of the regulations until last. Given the number of low flying accidents, I am not sure how much of a deterrent they are, especially because the FAA has categorically refused to say specifically where it is legal to fly low and where it is not. It continues to refuse, despite pressure, to define "congested area" in FAR 91.119 and pulls the term out of the hat without any rhyme or reason to go after pilots for low-flying violations. Because the FAA has refused to define where pilots may not legally fly low, I've long felt that the FAA set up a lot of law-abiding pilots to die because they thought what they were about to do was legal. Had they realized it wasn't, I think many of them might have decided not to make that particular buzz job. I am of the opinion that it is unconscionable for the FAA to not define "congested area" and "sparsely populated" as doing so might save lives.

When it comes to low flying and I am asked to put on my aviation lawyer hat to tell someone where it is legal to fly low under Part 91.119, my response is generally along the lines of pointing out that, first of all, you have to be high enough to make a forced landing if the engine quits; beyond that, when over sparsely populated areas, you have to stay at least 500 feet in any direction from people, vessels, vehicles and structures. The FAA has not defined sparsely populated areas; however, my rule of thumb is very cautious. If there are four houses or more in a quarter mile (or in any sort of housing development), or if there are several cars on a highway, or a small group of people standing around together, it is not sparsely populated, it is a congested area.

That's not what a normal reading of the term "congested" generates, but it's what the FAA has used when going after pilots. It means that if there are a half dozen people standing on the ramp at the airport, don't do a buzz job down the runway that is within 500 feet of them because the FAA can and has come after folks for doing just that. The reality is that flying below 1,000 feet agl when there are even a few houses or any people around to see you, especially in the world of post 9-11 hysteria, there is a chance that someone is going to complain to the FAA. Below about 500 feet, you can be almost assured of a complaint. (Oh yeah, a lot of people do not think airplanes are cool at all, they are scared to death of them and they complain loudly.)

Should you be the subject of a complaint to the FAA, you can count on the FAA refusing to believe your testimony as to your altitude unless you have radar data to confirm it. What's worse is that you can count on people having cell phone cameras and taking pictures of you, which has made going after low flying violators much, much easier for the FAA. As a result, if you have the burning desire to fly low down a beach on a summer day, or over the county fair or bluegrass concert in the cell phone camera age, you are about to take an IQ test. If you act on the desire, you may just be demonstrating that your IQ is approximately room temperature and the evidence is going to be enroute from a bunch of cell phones directly to the FAA.

All of this adds up to a need to talk about flying low in honest, detailed terms. If nothing else, we have to get beyond the futility of prevention by preaching abstinence. We must educate pilots about what they face when they take an airplane down low away from an airport so that they can make a reasoned decision as to whether to get that speed fix, and if they decide to do so, they do it somewhere and in a fashion that they won't kill themselves or get the chance to defend a certificate action by the FAA.

See you next month.

Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out AVweb's "Pilot's Lounge" index.