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My friend was paddling in a big race in Dana Point, California and she said the helicopter was directly over her taking pictures to sell. It looks to be at no more than fifty feet above sea level (if that!); this flight behavior seems insanely dangerous and/or illegal, but maybe I'm wrong. Anyone have hard facts on this type of flying for photos?

  • $\begingroup$ Might you wish to insert the word "legally" into the title of your question? $\endgroup$ Mar 28, 2021 at 19:19

2 Answers 2


There's no minimum altitude over open water but the pilot must stay at least 500ft away from the boats, per 14 CFR 91.119:

(c) Over other than congested areas. An altitude of 500 feet above the surface, except over open water or sparsely populated areas. In those cases, the aircraft may not be operated closer than 500 feet to any person, vessel, vehicle, or structure.

There's also a catch-all regulation that prohibits endangering other people, 91.13:

(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.

It's very hard to tell from the photo how far the helicopter is from the boats but if your friend believes it was closer than 500ft, she can report it to the FAA.

  • $\begingroup$ I have a feeling there is an exemption in there somewhere for special events though. If you ever watch the chopper that buzzes around F1 races they come real close sometimes. $\endgroup$
    – Trevor_G
    Sep 16, 2017 at 15:19
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Trevor Yes, it's possible the F1 guys have an FAA waiver that gives them an exception under specific conditions. $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Sep 16, 2017 at 15:24
  • $\begingroup$ FAA waivers are common for sporting and "reality" filming. $\endgroup$
    – mongo
    Sep 16, 2017 at 17:03
  • $\begingroup$ F1 is an excellent example - was watching the Italian GP a couple of weeks ago and there were shots from a guy in a man-lift looking down on the helicopter. Of course, Monza, Italy isn't covered by FAA regs, but still... $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Sep 18, 2017 at 19:36

The regulation mentioned above is correct (14 CFR 91.119), but it was taken somewhat out of context. In part D, it says:

(d) Helicopters, powered parachutes, and weight-shift-control aircraft. If the operation is conducted without hazard to persons or property on the surface—

(1) A helicopter may be operated at less than the minimums prescribed in paragraph (b) or (c) of this section, provided each person operating the helicopter complies with any routes or altitudes specifically prescribed for helicopters by the FAA; and

(2) A powered parachute or weight-shift-control aircraft may be operated at less than the minimums prescribed in paragraph (c) of this section.

What this means in practice for most of us, is that generally speaking we'll stay at 500-1000, depending on where we're flying, but we often practice auto-rotations and inclined landings in areas off airport, so when taking off and landing, we'll be at much lower altitude. If there's fixed wing traffic, as there often is in Chicago, ATC will direct me to fly at lower than 500 (they'll generally ask me to stay below 500 when I fly along a route also used by fixed wing).

As it was explained to me, we're allowed below as long as we're not conducting ourselves with hazards for the people below, and generally it's more or less using reasoning and common sense. So I can stay relatively low to the ground, but if I started trying to fly between buildings here in Chicago, that would be considered unsafe and a violation. On the other hand, we'll practice off airport landings and maneuvers quite close to the ground, but they'll be in relatively isolated areas (fields, hills, etc.). Over the water, flying at an event like in the picture, if it's condoned/expected for you to be there, it wouldn't be considered a hazard. If you were a private pilot that hadn't requesting it beforehand, I'm guessing you'd be hearing from the FAA.


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