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Please Fly Neighborly

by James E. Pyles
Reprinted with permission from FAA Aviation News

It is time for each of us to reflect on our responsibilities to each other in this great country in which we live. Every pilot needs to revisit a topic that we often overlook. The topic I am speaking about is our responsibility to fly neighborly.

The FAA has always received complaints concerning low flying aircraft over noise-sensitive areas. You've seen the list'open air assemblies of persons, churches, hospitals, schools, nursing homes, noise-sensitive residential areas, National Park Areas, to name but a few. Other organizations like the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and Helicopter Association International (HAI) have addressed this issue with handouts and guides, such as the 'Fly Neighborly Guide' published by HAI in 1982 and revised in 1991, to help pilots make good sound decisions when it comes to the flight path and altitudes flown. The FAA has published Advisory Circulars (AC), such as AC 91-36C, 'Visual Flight Rules (VFR) Flight near Noise-sensitive Areas,' to encourage pilots to choose altitudes and flight paths that will minimize their adverse impact on others, especially around airports and navigational aids where it is natural to have an increase of aviation activities.

Ask yourself this question; 'on my last flight did I take into consideration the effects of my flight on others?' So, what was your answer? Chances are, you did not.

The federal aviation regulations give us the 'minimum safe altitudes' to start our planning, but all too often we pilots have the attitude that minimum is good enough. While it may be safe to fly at the minimum requirements for a particular flight, it would do the industry a lot of good in the public relations department to add a few hundred feet or alter our flight path to avoid needless aggravation to those below us.

Flight instructors often practice over the same areas. They do 'turns about a point' over the same barn, church, or intersection hour after hour, day after day. It is no wonder this kind of repeated activity solicits phone calls and letters to the local Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) complaining about the noise and danger of all the aircraft overhead.

To add to the concerns of the general public, we have the security issues brought to the limelight after the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Heightened concerns about repeated flights over houses and neighborhoods and what 'they' could be doing have accompanied the traditional complaints about noise and the possibilities of a crash.


Here are a few ideas to help you plan in the future. They are just a few of the many you might come up with on your own; so do not feel like this is an 'all inclusive' list. Above all, remember to use good judgment, common sense, and safety'safety should always be your first concern.

  • Remember, 'altitude above you and runway behind you, don't do you any good.' Start your takeoff roll at the beginning of the runway, so that more of your climb to a safer, neighborly, altitude will be over the airport. Besides, you might be glad you have that extra few feet should you have an emergency.
  • If you do not know if you are over a 'congested area of a city, town, or settlement,' then assume you are and fly at the appropriate minimum altitude or higher.
  • Remember the federal aviation regulations say 'an altitude of 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal radius of 2,000 feet.' So, make sure you are at least that far away from the hillside that might contain houses or people.
  • Take the time to find out where the noise-sensitive areas are around you, and then do your best to avoid them. Make a concerted effort to minimize your impact on them.
  • During VFR operations over noise-sensitive areas, pilots should make every effort to fly not less than 2,000 feet above the surface, weather permitting.
  • When conducting flight training, be aware of what lies below you at all times. Use appropriate altitudes for ground reference maneuvers. Teach your students from the beginning to fly neighborly. (Don't forget 14 CFR '91.303, it really does apply to you! See the shaded sidebar box below for more info on this. )
  • Pilot examiners, too, can play an important role by adopting fly-neighborly practices in their flight exams.
  • Get involved! Help your local airport authorities educate the communities around the airport about local navigational aids and the types of flights conducted there. Also, you should teach your local airport neighbors what is allowed by regulation and how to properly identify aircraft should the need arise.
  • Help your local zoning commission understand the usefulness of the airport to the community and the necessity to have proper building and zoning laws in effect to provide for a safe airport environment. You never know, this just might keep a house from being built at the end of your runway.

James E. Pyles is the Regional Safety Program Manager for the Northwest Mountain Region, Seattle WA.

'91.119 Minimum Safe Altitudes:


Except when necessary for takeoff or landing, no person may operate an aircraft below the following altitudes:

(a)   Anywhere. An altitude allowing, if a power unit fails, an emergency landing without undue hazard to persons or property on the surface.

(b)   Over congested areas. Over any congested area of a city, town, or settlement, or over any open air assembly of persons, an altitude of 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal radius of 2,000 feet of aircraft.

(c)    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.

(d)   Helicopters. Helicopters may be operated at less than the minimums prescribed in paragraph (b) or (c) of this section if the operation is conducted without hazard to persons or property on the surface. In addition, each person operating a helicopter shall comply with any routes or altitudes specifically prescribed for helicopters by the Administrator.

'91.303 Aerobatic flight

No person may operate an aircraft in aerobatic flight'

(a)   Over any congested area of a city, town, or settlement;

(b)   Over an open air assembly of persons;

(c)    Within the lateral boundaries of the surface areas of Class B, Class C, Class D, or Class E airspace designated for an airport;

(d)   Within 4 nautical miles of the center line of any Federal airway;

(e)   Below an altitude of 1,500 feet above the surface; or

(f)     When flight visibility is less than 3 statute miles.

For the purposes of this section, aerobatic flight means an intentional maneuver involving an abrupt change in an aircraft's attitude, an abnormal attitude, or abnormal acceleration, not necessary for normal flight.

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