Let's take a Cessna 172R for example. According to the POH this airplane has a service ceiling of 13,500 ft.

I know that the service ceiling is the maximum altitude where a 100 foot per minute climb can be maintained. So that would mean that it can technically continue the climb and fly well above his service ceiling, until full power is required for level flight (Correct me if i'm wrong here).

My question is, besides the physical barrier, is there any regulations that would prevent and aircraft to fly higher than his certified service ceiling?

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    $\begingroup$ the desire of the pilot to get back home is considered? $\endgroup$
    – Federico
    May 24, 2017 at 11:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Federico I'm asking about service ceiling, not max operating altitude, but I get your point! ^^ $\endgroup$
    – Jimy
    May 24, 2017 at 11:24
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    $\begingroup$ FlyingMag: 18,300 Feet in a Cessna 152: What I learned about flying $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    May 24, 2017 at 15:07
  • $\begingroup$ Provided you conformed to other flight rules, e.g. Airspace, supplemental oxygen, etc., there's no restriction against it. But why would you want to? $\endgroup$ May 24, 2017 at 23:51

4 Answers 4


You didn't say which country you're asking about, but in the US it's legal. Your definition of service ceiling is correct, and there's no regulation that I know of that requires you remain below it.

The only clear case I can think of would be if the POH says that the service ceiling is an actual limitation and you shouldn't operate above it. Exceeding limitations in the POH is a violation of 14 CFR 91.9(a):

Except as provided in paragraph (d) of this section, no person may operate a civil aircraft without complying with the operating limitations specified in the approved Airplane or Rotorcraft Flight Manual, markings, and placards

The AIM 5-3-3 requires you to report to ATC if you can't maintain a 500ft/min climb rate, so I suppose that not doing that could get you in trouble somehow. But there's no actual regulation, as far as I can see.

There are other, contrived scenarios that you could invent. If exceeding the service ceiling would require specific equipment or training that you don't have, then you could be in violation of various regulations, but that isn't because of the service ceiling itself.

And finally, there's the catch-all 91.13:

No person may operate an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.

If you do operate above the service ceiling and something goes wrong, then the FAA could bust you on that. Trying to get over mountains at or close to your service ceiling could be an example.

  • $\begingroup$ There's also the supplemental oxygen requirement. $\endgroup$
    – TomMcW
    May 24, 2017 at 18:17
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    $\begingroup$ @TomMcW Yes, that's the sort of thing I meant with my "equipment or training" comment. If exceeding your service ceiling means you need oxygen and you don't have it, you're violating 91.211. But you're violating a regulation on supplemental oxygen, not one on exceeding service ceilings. $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    May 24, 2017 at 18:30
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    $\begingroup$ It's important to remember that published service ceiling is based on a standard atmosphere. It's density altitude that is the reality of flying. On a 95 degF day in Albuquerque, the density altitude on the ground (elev. 5200 feet) is over 9000 ft. Good luck getting even close to 10000 ft. OTOH, on a cold winter day (0 degF) 13,500 ft density altitude may be above 15000 feet. $\endgroup$
    – Gerry
    May 25, 2017 at 17:08

It is not illegal unless ceiling is listed as a limitation in the limitation section of the POH or AFM. Simply mentioning a service ceiling does not make it a limitation, the service ceiling has to be a published limitation in the limitations section.

If your cruise performance tables only give numbers for 2700, 2500, and 2300 RPM can you run the engine at 2400 RPM? Of course you can. These values are not limitations, they're merely performance expectations (just like the ceiling figure).


As far as I know there is not FAR that requires you to abide by the POH numbers. However a case could most likely be made that this is careless or reckless operation,

§91.13 Careless or reckless operation.

(a) Aircraft operations for the purpose of air navigation. No person may operate an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.

There are some other limits that could be imposed. First off FL180 and up is class A airspace and requires you to be going IFR. Subsequently you need to be equipped for IFR to do so, in turn you could not take a VFR only aircraft above FL180 in most scenarios.


Service ceiling may be exceeded in the US, not withstanding operational restrictions from the manufacturer and regulatory altitude restrictions such as O2 requirements, ATC, etc.

In general your chances of exceeding the service ceiling are greater with a light load, and in cooler temperatures, where your performance is better. Flying in the middle of a low helps as well, because there is a light updraft. It is a somewhat common occurrence when flying in some mountainous regions (particularly in South America), where mountain wave will provide additional lift. The conservative pilot may choose to take the altitude from the wave, figuring that when they are out of it, there will be a strong downdraft.

Flying unforecast mountain wave I have encountered -2000++ VSI readings flying at Vy in the downdraft region, and +2000++ VSI readings flying near Vmo or Vne in updrafts.

Bottom line to remember, your practical service ceiling is impacted by atmospheric conditions, and to a larger extent loading.


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