I recently had the opportunity to rent a plane and fly in the San Francisco Bay Area. While flying in the HWD/OAK/SFO area is challenging enough, when I spoke of my adventures of flying above Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge, some of my fellow pilots asked me if I flew UNDER the Golden Gate Bridge and voiced their desire to do so. As a relatively new pilot (3 months), while flying is definitely an adventure for me, flying under a suspension bridge is pushing my minimum safety limits and just does not seem lawful.

Others have told me that they have seen GA aircraft fly under the bridge. While I'm sure pilots have done it...I don't see how this can be legal. According to sources on the internet the bridge is only suspended 270' above the bay. It doesn't seem enough space to fly through legally.

According to 91.119

Except for takeoff or landing, no person may operate an aircraft below the following altitudes;

a. Anywhere. An altitude allowing, if power unit fails, an emergency landing without undue hazard to persons or property on the ground.

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

To me, 270' does not meet the legal requirements set in 91.119(c) I don't consider the SF Bay or water under the bridge to be "open".

So, is it legal to fly under a suspension bridge like the Golden Gate or Verrazano-Narrows Bridges?

  • $\begingroup$ While the regulations detail the same requirements, my post deals specifically with the legalities of flying under a bridge. $\endgroup$
    – Joe Covino
    Dec 26 '17 at 20:39
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    $\begingroup$ The regulation seems quite clear. The bridge is 270 feet above the surface of the water, and you are required to maintain a distance of 500 feet from it. Therefore, it is legal to fly under it only if you are flying at least 230 feet below the surface of the water. $\endgroup$ Dec 27 '17 at 2:35
  • $\begingroup$ As @TannerSwett says. Even if you do consider the SF Bay "open water", the bridge itself is unquestionably a structure, which means you're not legally allowed within 500 feet of it. If it's only 270 feet high, then you can't legally pass under it. Double the height, however, and you'd be okay (just barely). $\endgroup$
    – aroth
    Dec 27 '17 at 2:54

No, it would violate regulations unless it was to meet the needs of an emergency.

Don't forget the catch-all regulation about reckless operation; many regulations may be interpreted very subjectively, and I feel that it is safe to say that flying under the Golden Gate bridge would attract a lot of negative publicity and would ultimately be considered something that the pilot of a fixed-wing aircraft would certainly be reprimanded for.

That's not even considering whether the bridge is 500 feet high, boats that may or may not be passing under the bridge, and your question completely truncated the 91.119(b) that lists information for congested areas, which I am almost certain the Golden Gate bridge would be subjectively qualified as.

  • $\begingroup$ Just as a curiosity, would there be more lenience for choppers? Or is it exactly the same? $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Dec 26 '17 at 22:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Fattie A local helicopter tour operator seems to do it semi-regularly, apparently under the exception in 91.119(d)(1). I'm sure one can have a good argument about the meaning of "without hazard to persons or property on the surface," but it seems to have been considered acceptable so far. $\endgroup$ Dec 27 '17 at 5:03
  • $\begingroup$ astonishing, @ZachLipton ! $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Dec 27 '17 at 11:25

It’s illegal under 91.13 and any FSDO inspector who found out you did a damn fool stunt like that would yank your license in a heartbeat.

§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.

(b) Aircraft operations other than for the purpose of air navigation. No person may operate an aircraft, other than for the purpose of air navigation, on any part of the surface of an airport used by aircraft for air commerce (including areas used by those aircraft for receiving or discharging persons or cargo), in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.

On rare occasions pilots have flown under bridges and other structures as part of demonstration flying. They are all experienced aerobatic pilots with thousands of flight hours doing low altitude demonstration flying under their belts and have specific permits issued by the FAA in order to make these kinds of demonstration flights. THEY ALSO UNDERSTAND THAT THIS KIND OF FLYING IS INHERENTLY RISKY, HAVE CAREFULLY PLANNED THE STUNT IN ADVANCE PRIOR TO EXECUTING IT AND ARE WILLING TO ACCEPT THESE RISKS AS PART OF THE PERFORMANCE.

If you are found to have done this you will be sanctioned and potentially lose your license. If your attempt results in an accident causing loss of life you can face severe civil and criminal penalties for wrongful death and manslaughter. If your friends are suggesting you do it, they’re idiots. Don’t try it.

  • $\begingroup$ Flying under bridges also occurs in air racing, Peter Besenyei has flown under the Chain Bridge in Budapest numerous times. $\endgroup$ May 12 '19 at 15:46
  • $\begingroup$ You are NOT Peter Besenyei. $\endgroup$ May 12 '19 at 20:46
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ So when did I claim to be Peter Besenyei? $\endgroup$ May 14 '19 at 9:26
  • $\begingroup$ i.e. don’t get any bright ideas about that stuff. $\endgroup$ May 14 '19 at 10:13

It is not illegal, but it is a violation of FAA regulations, which could result in various civil penalties.

You quoted the violation yourself: you are not supposed to fly closer than 500 feet to any building or structure, unless engaged in specific activities, like crop dusting. The deck of the bridge is about 250 feet above the water, so you would definitely be too close.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ How sure are you it is not illegal? Criminal reckless endangerment is certainly not out of the question. Getting into the cockpit of an airplane does not shift the paradigm of law. Saying this is not illegal would not be unlike saying that punching a pilot in the face is not assault because threatening and intimidating flight crew is simply prohibited in the FAA aviation regulations. While it could very well go unpunished from a criminal viewpoint, you cannot make guarantees that it would. $\endgroup$ Jan 30 '18 at 23:37
  • $\begingroup$ Is it"illegal" to violate FAA regulations? In what sense is it not "illegal" to violate FAA regulations? Are the regs not essentially laws? Of if not, is there not some law that says you have to follow the regs? For example Congress passed a bill last October that directed the FAA to make very specific changes to FAR 107-- are you saying this has nothing to do with lawmaking? (This could be a separate question for Av Stack Exchange.) PS these are real questions here, I'm "asking" you not "telling" you-- $\endgroup$ May 12 '19 at 13:20
  • $\begingroup$ @quietflyer I realize that you might not be an American. In the United States there is a difference between laws and regulations. Laws are created by elected officials. Regulations are created by bureaucrats that have not been elected. In United States criminal charges can only be brought against someone who has violated a law, meaning rules created by ELECTED officials. Breaking rules created by unelected officials is not considered illegal and is called instead a "civil infraction". This is an important principle of what we call a Republic. $\endgroup$ May 12 '19 at 14:23
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for the clarification. It might be a good topic for an actual question to A.S.E. I am a US citizen BTW. $\endgroup$ May 12 '19 at 15:41
  • $\begingroup$ The fact that in at least some cases, the FARs are created in response to very specific directives from Congress essentially outlining exactly what the new FARs need to be (case in point legislation passed in October 2018 outlining very specific airspace restrictions on non-commercial sUA's, eg model airplanes) is not relevant here? $\endgroup$ May 12 '19 at 15:44

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