The Risks Of Flying Low
By: Ed Burkhead

Risk management is fancy terminology for not getting crunched. As we fly, we need to try to keep layers of options available so, if normal operations go sour, we fall back to plan B, then plan C if necessary. Having extra options can sometimes make the difference between safety and weeks or months in the hospital.

As we fly lower and lower, our time to try option B and option C gets shorter and shorter, sometimes disappearing completely (stall/spin at low altitude, for example).

So, as we fly lower and lower, we need to take more and more care to prevent "normal operations" from going sour.

When low, some precautions can be worthwhile. Here are some suggested precautions. Please let us know of any you think need to be included.

  1. Even though your engine has been reliable, don't count on it working in the next five minutes. Have a place to land without damage if you can. If you are so low there are sometimes no good options, plan how you are going to handle the bad options like the field of tall corn or the 40-acre woods.
  2. Don't make sudden maneuvers at low altitude. The lower you go, the shallower should be your bank angle and the milder your pull-ups. You don't want to take a chance on a stall or stall-spin close to the ground.
  3. Look ahead. Look far ahead. Deliberately look for radio/TV antennas, power lines, tree lines, wind shadows and turbulence from objects and more. It's like driving over 100 mph on the Autobahn, your mind had better be thinking about the movements and expectations of every vehicle on the road ahead of you within sight. When you're flying low, your mind should be vibrant with thinking about and watching for every possible obstacle. Flying low isn't lazy beauty - it needs to be a demanding mental challenge like rush hour or race car driving.
  4. Be aware of the condition referred to, in some quarters, as "Fixation." This is when a pilot concentrates on something so much that the pilot fails to notice other critical factors. For example, watching the people on the beach or the cows in the field with too much fixation could make you miss seeing the oncoming wires, high tree or notice that you are having high CHT or slowly losing altitude. Remember Flight 401 where a failed gear light fixated two pilots and an engineer so much they didn't notice they were losing altitude right into the swamp - 98 dead. As pilots, we need to be keeping our heads on a swivel. That's triply important at low altitude. Be aware of everything.
  5. There's low flight for cruising or sightseeing and there's also low flight to impress or get the attention of people on the ground. Both kinds of low flight have increased risks but experience has shown that pilots are very prone to errors when they're trying to impress or get the attention of people on the ground.

    Think about and decide upon your personal procedures for show-off or attention getting low passes. Never doing it is a good option. If you do low passes, you can greatly improve your safety if you always do them straight and level with maybe some wing-wagging. If you want to make a second pass, don't turn near your audience but go a ways away and make a standard turn, line up on your target and do another pass straight and level. Any turns or cute pull-ups near the ground, especially when your attention is on the ground for the benefit of an audience, have risk 10 or 100 times higher than simple low-level flight. And, keep in mind the separation rules below.
  6. While flying low anytime, keep tight watch on your airspeed. It's very easy for your airspeed to degrade when you're eyes and mind are outside the plane down low and 10 times more so if you're maneuvering. Your mind is used to the sight of the world going by at a certain rate. When you are very low and the objects outside appear to be going by much faster, it is deceptive. Until (and even after) you have lots of low level practice, keep a close eye on airspeed when you're down low.
  7. Be sure to keep the FAA’s 500’ margin vertically, horizontally, or on a diagonal from every person, vehicle or structure. Diagonal or horizontal displacement has value because people are less likely to think you could fall on them if you never fly over them. Practice with landmarks so you know what 500’ looks like horizontally. Exceed this margin from the persons, vehicles and structures by as much as you practically can.
  8. Have a plan for what to do after things go wrong. Do you have an ELT? Do you have a personal locator transmitter or a cell phone? Is your cell phone one of the new ones with the GPS chip and do you have it turned on or know how? Does someone know approximately where you are flying?

Flying low is a beautiful thing. In some ways, it's the epitome of flying to be just above the scenery and near enough to see it well. Sometimes when there are strong headwinds aloft during a cross country flight, flying low may bring milder winds. But be aware of the risks in involved. At 300' and lower there just may not be any time to switch to plan B, not to mention plan C.

Y'all be careful out there!