There's a small pond/lake behind my house. A sea plane was just going around it. It was very loud and got like 10 feet from the shore. It's just going in circles and won't take off and leave.

This is at the tiny town of Elbow lake, MN. There's a small airport here, Elbow Lake Municipal (Y63). If you look at the links, you can see it's near a small lake, and there is a large peninsula on it that comes to a point.

It's so annoying. How can they do this, so close and in residential? Isn't there some regulation to prevent this?

Note: The town of Elbow Lake, MN should not be confused with the body of water, Elbow Lake located some 70 miles NNE. That lake does have a seaplane base (M49), but that area is entirely unrelated to this question.

  • $\begingroup$ Related: If I have a float plane, can I land on any body of water? $\endgroup$
    – fooot
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 21:42
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    $\begingroup$ There is a marked, FAA approved Seaplane base right at the point you're describing. You're probably completely out of luck: skyvector.com/… $\endgroup$
    – abelenky
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 22:25
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    $\begingroup$ An airplane cannot fly within 500ft people/buildings, unless it is intending to takeoff or land. As you have described it, this plane is not flying (it is taxiing in circles around the lake). If it does takeoff, that will also be legal. If it were to fly past your house at less than 500 ft, without the intention to takeoff/land, then that would be a violation. That is not what you have described. $\endgroup$
    – abelenky
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 22:29
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    $\begingroup$ @kelly What would you do if it had been a boat, busy boating about making the same level of noise ? $\endgroup$
    – Criggie
    Commented May 10, 2017 at 7:33
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    $\begingroup$ To answer the title of the Question: Yes, floatplanes do fly over residential neighborhoods in urban areas. Ex: floatplanes daily depart & arrive the waters of Lake Union in downtown Seattle, flying quite close over the residential neighborhood of Wallingford. $\endgroup$ Commented May 11, 2017 at 4:37

4 Answers 4


A sea plane was just going around it. It was very loud and got like 10 feet from the shore. It's just going in circles and won't take off and leave.

As has been pointed out in other answers and comments, if the aircraft is taking off or landing, there are no regulations requiring distance from persons or structures, at least that I know of.

What you may be witnessing is an attempt to takeoff in less than optimal conditions. For example, if there is no wind and the surface of the water has no wave action, it can be very difficult to break away from the water sufficiently to get the aircraft "up on the step", in other words to get it going fast enough that it can plane along the front part of the floats (or the hull). Once the floats are "planing" on the water, with the lesser drag than if they are fully in the water, the aircraft may then be able to accelerate to takeoff speed.

The usual procedure if you're having trouble taking off from a wave-less water surface (often called glassy water), is to run back and forth at a high power setting with as much speed as you can get to generate waves. Then, at some point hopefully, as you run back across waves you've previously generated you'll be able to break free of the water because there's less drag running across waves, even small ones (ripples even) than glassy water.

I had to employ that procedure a few times back when I was flying floats, and I remember one instance when it took at least a half hour before I managed to get airborne.

Are seaplanes allowed to fly in residential areas?

I can't speak to current practices and regulations as I retired in 1999. However, back in the 1970s and 1980s when I was flying floats, we often operated in residential areas. For example, go to Google Earth and bring up Eugene, Oregon. Look at the area on the Willamette River immediately adjacent to downtown Eugene. You'll notice two bridges. We often operated alongside residental areas upstream and downstream of the bridges. We also operated between the bridges. Depending on conditions that sometimes meant flying under one of them, not an uncommon practice for seaplanes, and perfectly legal, at least back then.

If you don't have Google Earth, you can use the Google Earth browser version or see it on Google Maps.

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    $\begingroup$ I must see that 747 on floats. $\endgroup$
    – dotancohen
    Commented May 10, 2017 at 10:18
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    $\begingroup$ @dotancohen That would be an interesting concept, but there was no overlap between my float plane flying and 747 flying. I didn't start flying 747s until 1990. But in the 1970s and early 1980s I belonged to the CAP. We had a J-3 with an 85 hp Continental engine. In the winter we kept it on wheels, in the summer on floats. I was one of two instructors in the squadron, and each summer brought a raft of CAP pilots wanting to get their seaplane rating. There's nothing like instructing in an airplane with marginal performance to get you to really learn things. $\endgroup$
    – Terry
    Commented May 10, 2017 at 19:20

If you have concerns over the safety of what is going on, here is what you should do:

  1. Record a video with your phone. Try to get the N number (it should be painted in large letters on the side of the aircraft).
  2. Record the date/time and your exact location where you shot the video from.
  3. File a report with the FAA, preferrably by calling the hotline number.

The FAA will investigate the operation for the legality of it. If this is legal depends on a number of factors. Most local jurisdictions have control over the use of a body of water for sea planes.

Usually as far as the FAA is concerned, once a sea plane is on the water it is considered a boat. You may also have to call your local natural resources department.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for "Usually as far as the FAA is concerned, once a sea plane is on the water it is considered a boat". Reasonable possibly but still funny. $\endgroup$
    – DRF
    Commented May 10, 2017 at 7:24
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    $\begingroup$ And, in most places in the US, they can be as loud as they want until the 10pm noise curfew. $\endgroup$
    – SnakeDoc
    Commented May 10, 2017 at 16:45
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    $\begingroup$ I know in my state, state police control waterways, they may be able to help you. I called the HiPo once on a stunt pilot causing near accidents, and erratic driving while buzzing an interstate. $\endgroup$
    – RomaH
    Commented May 10, 2017 at 20:20

There's no regulation that forbids all seaplane usage near the shore in all residential areas. After all, in many jurisdictions your neighbor can moor their seaplane right on their shore if he fills out the right paperwork. As others have noted, seaplanes can operate similarly to boats when taxiing. There appear to be no local restrictions applicable to boating operations in Elbow Lake. There is a seaplane base at the nearby airport, Y63 or "Elbow Lake-Pride of the Prarie Seaplane Base", so of course seaplane operation on those lakes is permitted under some circumstances.

While I am not aware of any restrictions on proximity to strutures while taxiing, Generall FAA regulations require that it remains 500 ft from any person, structure, or vessel while not taking off or landing (or taxiing). Minnesota regulation requires taking off and landing in such a manner as to clear all structures on the land by at least 100 ft and to clear all boats or persons on the water by at least 300 ft vertically and horizontally or "as near to 300 feet as the area of the water will permit". (source).

Some areas have noise and operating hours restrictions, but your lake does not appear to be on the list of lakes in Minnesota with operating hour restrictions. Even if it was, exceptions may be made for private or personal seaplane bases. I can't find any other noise regulations for your area.

The reality is, you live next to public water and the water is not a protected park or your private sanctuary. What you see as a charming lake for relaxing and enjoying the view, others may view as a great area for noisy swimming, boating, and yes, seaplane operation. You can designate up to 2,500 square feet of swimming area that boats and seaplanes can't enter (see The Minnesota Boating Guide), but even then the water is public water. Being mad about noise and reckless behavior from a seaplane to me is akin to being mad about noise and reckless sports in a community park. In both situations you can check local noise and usage regulations and even call the authorities, but what's going on probably isn't illegal even if it is unusual and rude. This sounds more like an interpersonal matter than a legal matter and should probably be handled as such. Keep in mind that the seaplane operator could be a neighbor down the street struggling to take off on a fishing trip and make sure your response is based on an honest assessment, not outrage.


Unless the aircraft is actually taking off and landing, it is required to maintain 500 ft from any person, vessel, vehicle or structure (47 CFR 91.119).

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    $\begingroup$ The question suggests that the plane is taxiing on the lake, not flying. So the 500ft. rule should not apply. $\endgroup$
    – abelenky
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 22:04
  • $\begingroup$ right at the point of my land, the lake gets really narrow. so when the aircraft does take off (it didn't today, but it has) they surely can't be over 500ft from the shore. it would be impossible. $\endgroup$
    – Kelly
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 22:12
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    $\begingroup$ "Unless actually taking off or landing": It is OK to get within 500 ft. of land when taking off; it is problematic to simply fly close to the ground without the intention of landing. $\endgroup$
    – abelenky
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 22:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Kelly the rule referred to is 500 ft vertical from the surface when in the air. It does not apply to aircraft taxiing (imagine how that would work at a major airport, if aircraft had to stay 500 ft away from terminal buildings etc.) $\endgroup$ Commented May 10, 2017 at 4:35
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    $\begingroup$ We are not saying there is NO regulation covering this; we are saying there is NO FAA regulation. You'll have to look to your local and state (non-aviation) agencies for Boating Rules and Noise Rules. But we won't have that kind of local info here. $\endgroup$
    – abelenky
    Commented May 10, 2017 at 11:59

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