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I have no exposure to aviation regulations, but I'm curious if some rules are different for emergency aircraft pilots. Similar to ambulance drivers and police officers being allowed to speed or run red lights for the sake of emergencies.

Specifically, this video shows a water bomber very close the ground and bystanders during an approach:

Near miss?

My gut tells me two things:

A) that this plane is dangerously close to the ground, and

B) that this would be a serious incident, representing some sort of strike against the pilot's record.

Please correct me if I'm wrong about either point. If either are true, though, is the situation treated differently for emergency pilots? Are they trained to go that close to the ground, like police officers are trained to handle a car at higher speeds? And are their rules different for that reason?


I'm not sure how much the answer would vary country to country, aircraft to aircraft, or even situation to situation. So if the question is too broad, assume the United States or Canada even though that's not where the video is from, and assume a water bomber pilot in a situation just like this.

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  • $\begingroup$ Maybe something went wrong? This looks more like a narrowly avoided crash. $\endgroup$ – h22 Aug 14 '16 at 19:08
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    $\begingroup$ That was entirely intentional. He's reloading with water and to do that he needs to come in very low and skim the lake surface. Nothing wrong here, just a pilot who knows what he's doing. $\endgroup$ – Carey Gregory Aug 14 '16 at 20:37
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    $\begingroup$ While picking up water is a normal operation, that plane almost just hit those people (and the ground). See the people ducking in fear under the shadow of the fuselage? Count me out on that - on the ground or in the plane! $\endgroup$ – Pugz Aug 15 '16 at 1:35
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    $\begingroup$ I agree it's low, but the camera perspective makes it look worse than it is $\endgroup$ – Jon Story Aug 15 '16 at 12:56
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    $\begingroup$ That doesn't look like a perspective problem to me... $\endgroup$ – Steve Aug 15 '16 at 17:34
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All aircrews have to comply with laws and regulations, unless they have a waiver that makes them exempt for certain regulations. Aerial Fire Fighting need to fly lower than the minimum safety altitude in order to pick up water, so they will have a written permanent waiver to do so.

This is similar to ATO's conducting training for student pilots. They can be allowed to fly below the minimum safety altitude (in Germany: 500ft) for the purpose of training engine failures and attempted emergency landings in fields.


In all honesty, it does not look like recklessness to me, it looks like the pilot miscalculated his approach and came in too low and with not enough speed, as he bounces off the water surfaces instead of doing a proper flare.

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No, law enforcement and fire department aircraft have to comply with all of the same safety guidelines that regular aircraft do. If this had taken place at a controlled airport, the crew would most likely be disciplined, but since it was outside of an airport and no damage or injury occurred, it's likely nothing will happen.

What they did was reckless, but as long as they caused no damage to their aircraft or to anyone on the ground there is nothing to punish them for. At an airport they could be punished for deviating from procedure, but otherwise nothing. (This is according to FAA guidelines, not sure what the DGAC guidelines are.)

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer! Follow up question: "since it was outside of an airport and no damage or injury occurred, it's likely nothing will happen." So does that mean the crew theoretically should be disciplined for being so close to the ground, but it just won't happen? $\endgroup$ – kdbanman Aug 24 '16 at 20:42
  • $\begingroup$ What they did was reckless, but as long as they caused no damage to their aircraft or to anyone on the ground there is nothing to punish them for. At an airport they could be punished for deviating from procedure, but otherwise nothing. (This is according to FAA guidelines, not sure what the DGAC guidelines are.) $\endgroup$ – Colin Pierce Aug 24 '16 at 20:58
  • $\begingroup$ That's clear and I believe it. If you include the meat of comment in the answer, I'll accept it. $\endgroup$ – kdbanman Aug 24 '16 at 22:05
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    $\begingroup$ @ColinPierce I find it VERY VERY hard to believe that you have to physically damage something for them to be punished. $\endgroup$ – Dan Aug 25 '16 at 12:25
  • $\begingroup$ @Dan A similar situation would be and ambulance/firefighter truck overrunning a red light during an intervention. They are allowed to deviate from the general rule, and put themselves/other in dangerous situations. It is however widely accepted and, unless there is an accident, there are no consequences. $\endgroup$ – Quentin Aug 25 '16 at 13:47
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In the USA wild land fires are covered by "temporary flight restrictions" which restrict access by general aviation. Fire related flights set transponder code 1255 so ATC can identify them. This is to avoid midair collisions.

As for altitude, in the USA over sparsely populated areas and open water there is no low altitude restriction other than staying 500 feet from a building or boat.

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