A recent FAA enforcement action provides another example of what I like to refer to as a “stupid pilot trick”. The case arose from a pilot’s execution of three low passes at an airstrip with a snow covered runway being used by snowmobilers. According to the snowmobilers, the aircraft flew within several feet of them and was close enough for the snowmobilers to view the pilot’s face which they said appeared to be “smirking” at them. The snowmobilers believed that the pilot was trying to scare them.
Well, as you might imagine, the snowmobilers did not appreciate the pilot’s low passes and promptly informed the FAA of the incident. An enforcement action followed. The FAA charged the pilot with a violation of FAR 91.119(c) which provides that, except when necessary for takeoff or landing, no person may operate an aircraft over other than congested areas at an altitude less than 500 feet from the surface. In sparsely populated areas, operations must be more than 500 feet from any person, vessel, vehicle, or structure. The FAA also charged him with violation of FAR 91.13(a) which prohibits careless or reckless conduct that potentially endangers the life or property of another. The pilot was specifically charged with recklessness.
At the NTSB hearing, the law judge held that the pilot made three low passes over the airstrip, that the first pass was typical, and that the second pass more than enough to confirm that the runway was safe for landing. However, by making a third pass over a runway that had too much snow for an aircraft equipped with wheels, such as the pilot’s aircraft, and then not landing even though the runway was clear of all obstacles during that last pass, the law judge determined that the pilot’s low passes below 500 feet were not intended for landing.
The law judge upheld the FAA’s 180 day suspension of the pilot’s certificate. The moral of the story: No matter how much you may be tempted to do a “watch this” maneuver (usually something less than safe to impress someone else and often a violation of the FAR’s), don’t do it. In hindsight, I doubt that the pilot in this case feels his low passes were worth the 180 day suspension he received. When the “watch this” urge strikes, resist the temptation. Fly safe and fly smart.