Is it a rules violation for a pilot to intentionally frighten a passenger to the point of hysterics?

I saw a "viral video" inside what looks like an inline two-seater being flown from the front seat (shot from the back seat). In the video the pilot slumps over sideways against the window and throttles down, increasingly letting the nose dip, while his passenger freaks out behind him thinking he's passed out and they're going to crash. Eventually the pilot throttles back up and levels off, then turns and smiles at his passenger, having played a trick on him.

The video is almost certainly staged (given how steadily the supposedly-hysterical passenger holds the phone taking the video), but it made me think: Given the unpredictability of people when faced with a life-threatening situation, if it were real, would the pilot in question be breaking a rule and/or law by inciting hysteria in that way? (As opposed to just acting like a massive [expletive deleted].)

Dave, whose eyes are clearly better than mine, says the plane is at about 2,900ft when the pilot starts his little trick and 2,400ft by the end of it, briefly exceeding 1000fpm descent. In addition to my main question, I'm curious whether that's a factor in whether it was a violation; goofing around at low(ish) altitude seems like a Bad Idea™. But the altitude is a side thing (particularly as they were clearly much higher than I originally thought), I'm primarily interested in intentionally inducing hysteria in a passenger.

I suppose we have to choose a locale, so let's say in the U.S.

• Do you have a link to the video, its hard to say if anything was out of line without some visual context to this. Also a pitch down and "loses significant altitude" at 500-700ft. will put just about any plane into the ground so something does not add up there. – Dave Oct 28 '19 at 13:07
• @Dave - I was intentionally avoiding linking to it because I figure it's clickbait, but: facebook.com/JuskoPinas/videos/3053213521360652 "Significant" meaning "of what's there." To me, 100ft is a lot more significant at 700ft than at 17,000ft. – T.J. Crowder Oct 28 '19 at 13:13
• It's not illegal to be a jerk. If it were, we'd run out of prisons long before we ran out of jerks. – StephenS Oct 28 '19 at 15:00
• @StephenS - No, of course. But creating a potentially hazardous situation when you're pilot in charge is rather more than just behaving like a jerk. :-) – T.J. Crowder Oct 28 '19 at 15:02
• Isn't intentionally, seriously frightening non consenting strangers illegal even on the ground, as harassment, intimidation, arguably assault? – rackandboneman Oct 28 '19 at 22:12

There's no regulation that I can see that says "don't frighten your passengers". And there probably shouldn't be: almost anything could frighten a nervous person who isn't familiar with aircraft, even if the maneuver (or whatever) is completely normal.

Having said that, if the FAA thinks you've done something stupid then they do have a 'catch-all' regulation that they could argue you violated.

14 CFR 91.13

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

I haven't watched the video but I think it's at least plausible that the FAA could say that there was a real risk that the panicked passenger would take the controls and try to fly the aircraft themselves. In a dive, pulling up suddenly could easily stall the aircraft and stall recovery is not intuitive or obvious to a non-pilot. In the worst case, pulling up suddenly from a dive can actually tear the wings off. So it would be very easy for the passenger to damage or destroy the aircraft and potentially fly into people or property on the ground.

Finally, apart from the aviation regulations, it might be possible for the passenger to sue the pilot for causing stress and emotional damage. You could always ask on law.SE about that.

• pulling up suddenly from a dive can actually tear the wings off I recall on my first flight long ago, somebody tried to assuage my concerns by pointing out that even the most violent turbulence can't cause the wings to come off... and since then it's amazing how many things I have learned actually can tear the wings off! – Michael Oct 28 '19 at 23:28
• A comment on the question suggested the possibility of the passenger trying to use the "brake pedal" (actually rudder) at the same time and inducing a snap roll. Other than mechanical damage, could any of this induce a spin or other condition the actual pilot might have trouble recovering from in ~2000ft, after pushing the passenger off the controls? Passenger-induced stall at ~2400ft doesn't seem too dangerous with the pilot actually alive. – Peter Cordes Oct 29 '19 at 2:17
• @PeterCordes that'd depend heavily on the specific aircraft and possibly atmospheric conditions. Some aircraft are nearly impossible to spin, others spin when you just look at them. – jwenting Oct 29 '19 at 8:08
• At my flight school there was an event when a glider student almost killed himself and his instructor. In a winch launch, the cable snapped. It's quite a normal event and we are all drilled how to handle it. However, the student was new, and the noise of the cable snapping and the sudden negative G as the instructor put the aircraft from a steep climb into a glide panicked him and he did the newbie mistake when the nose suddenly drops: he grabbed the stick and pulled it with all his force. Thankfully the instructor was physically much stronger and could maintain control against his pull. – vsz Oct 29 '19 at 9:51
• @Michael, turbulence, or pulling up suddenly, can't tear the wings off as long as the aircraft is flying below “manoeuvring speed” ($V_A$). Below this speed, the wings will stall before exceeding the design load. Pilots know it, and when turbulence is encountered, will slow down to “weather penetration speed”, which is some margin below this limit, so in normal line flight, turbulence indeed can't destroy the aircraft. But if somebody flies the aircraft too fast, then turbulence, or pulling up too hard, can destroy it. – Jan Hudec Oct 29 '19 at 22:37

First off, the altimeter is visible at various parts in the video, so we have an idea of exactly what is going on. The aircraft enters the "maneuver" at 2900ft and rolls out of it around 2400ft. Assuming that they are over land nearish to sea level, then they are likely always above the required 2000ft for safe altitude.

Broadly they are in violation of (Ron posted a comment as I'm writing this)

14 CFR § 91.13 - Careless or reckless operation.

But this is the FAA's most broad regulation, and they can chose to apply it how they see fit. In the video, the pilot appears to have full control of the plane, can consistently see forward and does not really maneuver the aircraft in any dangerous way. You can see on the VSI that the descent exceeds 1000 feet per minute at one point, which is fast but not out of the question for a small plane.

• My old eyes couldn't make out the altimeter reading. :-) I get that the pilot was always in control. My question is primarily about the inducing hysteria in the passenger. – T.J. Crowder Oct 28 '19 at 13:34
• @T.J.Crowder It's all down to whether it's considered dangerous to have a hysterical passenger. Whether that's the case, is hard to tell. Possibly not even the FAA knows this till they have a case like it. – Mast Oct 30 '19 at 12:25