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A common procedure in flight training is the low approach: simulating a landing, but without actually making contact with the ground before powering up and either going around in the traffic pattern or executing a missed approach procedure, sometimes after flying all the way down to an approach's minimums.

In this situation, a pilot flies very close to the ground - one suggested crosswind training procedure suggests flying along the runway low enough that "[i]t's OK if the wheels inadvertently touch down during the exercise."

Contrast this to other operations, including a simulated engine-out procedure away from an airfield. These are governed by FAR 91.119:

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

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

(b) Over congested areas. Over any congested area of a city, town, or settlement, or over any open air assembly of persons, an altitude of 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal radius of 2,000 feet of the aircraft.

(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.

Training for missed approaches and going around are important for basic skills, and they are performed very frequently. However, the regulations make no exception for training. For a maneuver where a pilot descends below 500 feet AGL without intending to land, is there legal guidance that makes this OK near a runway, or is it an unwritten exception?

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    $\begingroup$ This is an interesting one - I was able to think my way out of (a) and (c) pretty easily, but (b) can be tough - the approaches to my home field put you over "congested areas" below the minimum altitude per the regs. $\endgroup$
    – voretaq7
    Commented Jun 1, 2014 at 3:38
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    $\begingroup$ In Canada, CARS 602.15 (2)(b)(iv) gives an exception to the minimum altitudes for "flight training conducted by or under the supervision of a qualified flight instructor". Wonder if there's anything like that in FAA regs. $\endgroup$
    – user2168
    Commented Jun 1, 2014 at 5:56
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    $\begingroup$ Is there really, truly, such a thing as a go-around that is designed to be done, on purpose and as a part of a pattern? Seems to me, that intentionally done or not, what the pilot is ACTUALLY doing is landing, and then performing the go-around, which is PART OF the landing. Isn't the go-around the transition from landing back to pattern flight? $\endgroup$
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Jun 1, 2014 at 16:29
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    $\begingroup$ @CGCampbell There are intentional, planned go-arounds. Some training syllabi include approaches without landings in order to give the student a few more examples and practice attempts of perfect approaches in a given amount of time before adding in the landing component. They a component of instrument flight training. They are also an important skill to train for their own sake. $\endgroup$
    – user2168
    Commented Jun 1, 2014 at 18:17
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    $\begingroup$ @CGCampbell you could make a cogent argument for go-arounds being a landing, but the "make a low pass, keep the wheels a foot off the runway" method of improving students performance in the flare is certainly not intending to land. Practice instrument approaches can bust the altitude restrictions above if flown all the way to decision height (as is pretty common) like Articuno mentioned. $\endgroup$
    – voretaq7
    Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 2:31

2 Answers 2

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Well, I'm going with "It's a written exception, but nobody thought to include it in 14 CFR 91.119 though".

I say this because there are a number of regulations that require a student pilot or applicant for a license to receive and log flight training for go-arounds.

For example:

The complete text of the private pilot SEL requirement (and they are all similar) is:

§61.107 Flight proficiency.

(a) General. A person who applies for a private pilot certificate must receive and log ground and flight training from an authorized instructor on the areas of operation of this section that apply to the aircraft category and class rating sought.

(b) Areas of operation.

(1) For an airplane category rating with a single-engine class rating:

(i) Preflight preparation;

(ii) Preflight procedures;

(iii) Airport and seaplane base operations;

(iv) Takeoffs, landings, and go-arounds;

(v) Performance maneuvers;

(vi) Ground reference maneuvers;

(vii) Navigation;

(viii) Slow flight and stalls;

(ix) Basic instrument maneuvers;

(x) Emergency operations;

(xi) Night operations, except as provided in §61.110 of this part; and

(xii) Postflight procedures.

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There aren't any rules that explicitly allow it, but you are practicing landing, so you can do what's necessary for landing.

Also, a common misconception with the minimum altitudes rule is that 500 feet AGL is the lowest you can go over uncongested areas. That is not so, you can be 1 foot off the ground as long as you can still safely land if your engine dies and are still 500 feet away from structures, etc. Most airports are in uncongested areas and don't have anything within 500 feet of the runway.

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    $\begingroup$ What you say in the second paragraph isn't a common misconception that I am aware of. Do you have a reference? $\endgroup$
    – user2168
    Commented Jun 1, 2014 at 15:19
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    $\begingroup$ @NathanG Ralgha's answer says that it is a misconception that you can never fly below 500 ft AGL (a misconception that I hadn't heard until now). Your interpretation is correct. (c) "Over other than congested areas" is split into two different situations. The first situation, when not over open water or sparsely populated areas, restricts you to a minimum altitude of 500 ft AGL. The second situation, when over open water or sparsely populated areas, allows anywhere (even below 500 ft AGL) as long as not "closer than 500 feet to any person, vessel, vehicle, or structure". $\endgroup$
    – user2168
    Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 3:09
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    $\begingroup$ @Articuno Anecdotally I would say "you can't fly below 500' AGL" is a common enough misconception - I've heard it surprisingly often (especially living in New York where there's a counterexample right on the sectional). The regulation is usually cited correctly, but the folks citing the regulation probably aren't the ones getting the interpretation wrong. $\endgroup$
    – voretaq7
    Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 15:57
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    $\begingroup$ This has not held to be true. Just recently a well known video vlogger was suspended by the FAA for doing a low pass over an off-airport field he had permission to land on. He was cited and in his hearing it was upheld that because he didn’t actually land, he violated the only exception that allows you to operate within 500 feet of a person or structure. Technically, if you intend to land and go-around, you are in violation. Actually performing the landing operation is a mandatory element. That ruling has real implications for all of us and none of them are good. $\endgroup$
    – Max R
    Commented Sep 5, 2022 at 0:31
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    $\begingroup$ There must be more to that story. $\endgroup$
    – Khantahr
    Commented Sep 5, 2022 at 4:08

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