Imagine flying at 4500' indicated altitude, 4500' AGL, heading 270, directly towards a steep mountain ridge that tops out at 4000 feet. Imagine the mountain being almost like a flat wall.

When can I change altitudes to >4500' and still be in compliance with 91.159? Do I have to wait until I get close to the ridge when I'll be under "3,000 feet above the surface"? Can I interpret "above the surface" in a more liberal way?

§ 91.159 VFR cruising altitude or flight level.

Except while holding in a holding pattern of 2 minutes or less, or while turning, each person operating an aircraft under VFR in level cruising flight more than 3,000 feet above the surface shall maintain the appropriate altitude or flight level prescribed below, unless otherwise authorized by ATC:

(a) When operating below 18,000 feet MSL and -

(1) On a magnetic course of zero degrees through 179 degrees, any odd thousand foot MSL altitude 500 feet (such as 3,500, 5,500, or 7,500); or

(2) On a magnetic course of 180 degrees through 359 degrees, any even thousand foot MSL altitude 500 feet (such as 4,500, 6,500, or 8,500).

(b) When operating above 18,000 feet MSL, maintain the altitude or flight level assigned by ATC.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure I understand your question. 5500 would be an eastbound altitude, did you mean 6500? And if the ridge tops out at 4000, then the regulation only applies from 7000 at that point. But anyway, under VFR you can climb or descend whenever you want (airspace and ATC permitting) so I'm not sure what you're asking. $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Sep 6 '17 at 0:11
  • $\begingroup$ I'm asking: leading up to the ridge top, what constitutes as "above the surface"? The ground level directly below me? If so, 91.159(a)(2) is required right up until I'm over the ridge. Is this correct? $\endgroup$ – David Sep 6 '17 at 0:33
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    $\begingroup$ "Above the surface" means AGL. If the ridge top is at 4000 MSL, 91.159 only applies above 7000 MSL. $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Sep 6 '17 at 13:25
  • $\begingroup$ Exploit the "except while turning" part of the rule: enter into a very mild turn, and then you're free to climb whenever you want. $\endgroup$ – abelenky Sep 6 '17 at 18:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Devil07 That does make more sense (and I see the OP has edited the question to clarify it). Although since it's a VFR flight, the basic answer is still "climb whenever you like". $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Sep 8 '17 at 3:03

First, you said you're cruising at 4500 indicated, but then state that you are 4500 AGL. Indicated altitude is usually MSL, so this means the terrain is at 0 ft MSL until the base of the cliff, which then shoots up to 4000 MSL.

So as you travel westbound at 4500 MSL, you are in compliance with 91.159. The moment that the distance between your aircraft traveling at 4500 MSL and the ground is 3000 feet or less, then 91.159 no longer applies, and you can fly any altitude you need in order to maneuver around or over obstructions at or below 3,000 AGL.

Based on your scenario no action is required, you can just keep cruising along and fly over the cliff at 4500 MSL and 500 AGL over the "flat wall" mountain.

However, your question would be more interesting (and I'm guessing this is what you meant) if you had said that the flat wall was 5000 ft, because technically if the ground is at sea level up to the flat wall, then you are still more than 3000 AGL up until the moment your aircraft reaches the wall and 91.159 would still apply. The answer to this is that you would have to climb to the next westbound VFR altitude of 6500, and you could do it whenever its needed if you're on your own navigation, or when instructed by ATC if you are on an assigned altitude, or at anytime to avoid crashing into the mythical "flat wall" mountain.

The key is that this rule applies only during "level cruising flight" so when you are climbing or descending 91.159 does not apply, otherwise, VFR aircraft could never get to the upper VFR cruising altitudes.

  • $\begingroup$ as one approached the 5000' wall at a 4500' altitude, I believe one could declare an emergency since CFIT would be imminent, and then you're allowed to do basically whatever you needed to do to avoid the collision. However, applying common sense by climbing before needing to declare an emergency to avoid hitting the mythical wall would make more sense. $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Sep 7 '17 at 18:26

As Pondlife pointed out, you can climb and descend under VFR more or less whenever you like.

Of course, if you so wanted (keeping 91.119 in mind), you could just maintain your current altitude, since in your example the mountain tops out at 4,000 MSL and you're at 4,500 MSL.

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    $\begingroup$ I would consider 500 ft AGL over the tops to be dangerous in the event of downdrafts. $\endgroup$ – David Sep 9 '18 at 3:40

I think you may be over-using the term cruise or underestimating your role as PIC.

If you are maneuvering in a reasonable and predictable way to maintain obstacle/terrain clearance, then you aren’t really in cruise flight, you’re in maneuvering flight.

2nd, understand the intent behind the reg... it doesn’t prevent IFR/VFR conflict, it just reduces it by saying “if you’re straight and level at altitude going from point A to point B, why not fly at an altitude that separates you from IFR in case a clearance or nav mistake is made.”

You are still given broad discretion to weigh the risks of flying too long a distance at the wrong altitude, vs flying too close to terrain by waiting to climb til the last moment.

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    $\begingroup$ That's exactly it: Mr PIC, when do YOU want to start climbing in order to have adequate, prudent clearance from the mountain? Great, start climbing at that point! And if you're in a climb right until the point when, having passed the mountain, you're ready to descend, nothing requires you to top out at a particular VFR crusing altitude before descending. And, BTW, welcome to Av.SE! $\endgroup$ – Ralph J Apr 13 at 18:55

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