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https://www.aopa.org/news-and-media/all-news/2023/april/19/trent-palmer-battles-faa-over-word-necessary

To summarize, he made a low pass over a potential off-airport landing site to check whether or not it was suitable. He says that it was legal because it was necessary for the purpose of landing; the FAA disagrees. They are also charging him with careless or reckless operation.

What exactly did he supposedly do wrong? Wouldn't it be reckless to land on an unfamiliar site without making a low pass to assess the suitability of the landing site?

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    $\begingroup$ I think he would've been far better off asserting that he had the intention to land, and did a normal "go-around" after seeing unacceptable conditions on the landing surface. He would be allowed to go very low if he planned to land. Going below 500 ft purely for a visual inspection is what is in doubt and being litigated. $\endgroup$
    – abelenky
    Apr 26, 2023 at 15:50
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not arguing in favor of the FAA's decision, but there was some subjective evaluation of the video, he got as low as 30 feet, and he is a popular "YouTuber" with some incentive to show off just a little to attract viewers. I haven't seen the video of this specific incident, but would wager it was a little "extra" from what is normally needed to assess an off airport landing site. Especially since his friend could have cleared rocks and prepped it for him... $\endgroup$ Apr 26, 2023 at 16:39
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    $\begingroup$ @abelenky It's unlikely to have worked as a defense, since part of the judge's decision is that the strip was "unsuitable for landing" outside of an emergency, and that Palmer should have been able to determine that from "Any reasonable ground assessment, or a navigation map, or even a Google Earth view." $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Apr 26, 2023 at 18:32
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    $\begingroup$ @Someone Possibly. Palmer would have also needed to convince the judge that it was necessary to pass so close to the people and structures that he did. Given that he admitted that there were other routes he could have taken, that would be difficult to impossible. It wouldn't necessarily protect him from the 91.13 issue, either. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Apr 26, 2023 at 20:21
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    $\begingroup$ Remember it's not "500 feet, unless you are landing." It's "500 feet, unless necessary for landing." Admitting that there were alternatives that would work seems pretty damning to his defense. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Apr 26, 2023 at 20:29

3 Answers 3

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Specifically, the FAA alleges that Palmer:

operated at altitudes of less than 100 feet above ground level and, more specifically, operated within approximately 50 feet of a stable, shed, or propane tank; within approximately 100 to 150 feet of a residential home at 400 Desert Sun Lane; within 100 to 150 feet of an adult and child outside of the home; and within 300 feet of 2 adults and 2 children outside of the home and near the perimeter of the property.

The above is quoted from the NTSB order reaffirming the 120-day suspension.

The administrative law judge presiding over the case changed all of the distances to "within 500 feet," since there is inadequate evidence of the exact distances involved, but the evidence suggests that it was less than the 500 feet mentioned in 91.119(c).

The FAA maintains that low passes are not allowed to violate the altitude restrictions of 91.119. It further maintains that Palmer's intended landing spot was unsuitable for landing, and uses his own testimony and decision not to land as evidence. Also that Palmer was undertaking dangerous maneuvers at high bank angles that were unnecessary for landing.

Palmer admitted that there were alternative flight paths that could have kept him farther away from structures and still given him an appropriate viewing of the landing spot, and that he did not consider these alternatives.

The judge agreed that the spot Palmer chose was "unsuitable for landing" outside of an emergency, and that Palmer should have been able to determine that from seeing the nearby residences and structures from "any reasonable ground assessment, or a navigation map, or even a Google Earth view." Since the landing spot is unsuitable, nothing Palmer was doing could have been "necessary for landing," and so he is not excused from the requirements of 91.119.

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  • $\begingroup$ I would have argued that even if the land was not presently immediately suitable for landing, the inspection was an essential part of the operational sequence "record footage of intended landing strip; temporarily land elsewhere; inspect footage while safely on ground; make necessary changes to strip; take off; land on strip", any safe landing on the strip would require first doing a visual inspection from the air, and recording camera footage and inspecting it later would be safer than trying to inspect the strip while flying the plane. Even if the strip was known not to be in condition... $\endgroup$
    – supercat
    Apr 29, 2023 at 18:02
  • $\begingroup$ @supercat Given that the landing spot is intended for UAS, and UAS can hold cameras, that wouldn't be particularly convincing to me. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Apr 29, 2023 at 18:11
  • $\begingroup$ ...for immediate landing, a multi-camera aereal inspection could have aided the process of deciding whether some strip placements would make landings more or less safe than others. $\endgroup$
    – supercat
    Apr 29, 2023 at 18:11
  • $\begingroup$ I would also argue that (if my understanding of the facts is correct) the condition of the field was reasonably believed to be such that an engine failure would result in an uncomfortable but not life-threatening landing. Also, I've not flown an aircraft, but I would think that if one is trying to land at an airstrip without PAPI lights, it's useful to have certain reliable visual landmarks to indicate whether one is on a good glide slope. I don't know how well one could estimate without being an aircraft what kinds of visual references would be most suitable, and where... $\endgroup$
    – supercat
    Apr 29, 2023 at 18:24
  • $\begingroup$ ...a landing strip should best be placed to make use of them. $\endgroup$
    – supercat
    Apr 29, 2023 at 18:24
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In the FAA's opinion (and judgement!), his flight was contrary to CFR 91.119 specifically, flying within 500ft of a person, vehicle, ship or structure over a populated area.

In addition they say he operated outside of CFR 91.13 which covers reckless operation of an aircraft.

The judgement states:

The law judge ruled that the Administrator proved by a preponderance of the evidence that respondent operated a low altitude flight in violation of 14 C.F.R. §§ 91.119(a), (c) and 91.13(a) but identified mitigating factors justifying a reduced penalty

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  • $\begingroup$ So the ruling was that making sure it's safe to land is not a necessary part of landing? It seems like not doing so would be illegal. $\endgroup$
    – Someone
    Apr 26, 2023 at 16:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Someone The ruling was that making sure it's safe for landing could be done correctly and safely above 500ft. Therefore the unstated meaning of the ruling is that Trent's excuse was just an excuse (a.k.a. BS) $\endgroup$
    – slebetman
    Apr 27, 2023 at 7:34
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Palmer called it an "inspection pass" and not a "go-around".

A "go-around" is a very different thing in the eyes of aviators. There are two huge and opposing forces on go-arounds: foolish pilots trying to stick bad approaches plus tremendous pressure from "the company" to avoid the fuel cost and dispatching impact of a go-around. Versus, everyone who cares about safety, pushing back to protect pilots so they are free to choose go-arounds when warranted, without any fear of consequence or blowback.

Palmer should have argued that of relying on the friend's claims that the field was fit for service, and was intending to land. Then claimed to unexpectedly see something that made the field unfit, so went around and then diverted to an alternate field. At that point people would be getting on their feet to defend the call.

As things are, Palmer flat admitted this was not quite really an airport, hence warranting an off-airport-style inspection pass, and that could've been done from 500 feet. I don't know the particulars but I'd bet that the obstruction that caused Palmer to cancel the landing was readily visible from 500 feet.

So, this is a mess. Right now, it's doing the worst thing imaginable, which is to encourage pilots to head straight in and try to stick landings on marginal or defective sites that look worse and worse the closer they get. Because if they go around, well, then, that's an "inspection pass" and they're in the soup right next to Trent.

I think the fallout here is going to be, well, hopefully some refinement of the procedure for off airport landings.

The FAA had literature which advised pilots do arguably what Palmer did, so there's probably going to be an acquittal on appeal. The punishment here is not severe, so the case is entirely about "the principle of the thing" e.g. defining statutory, clear "lines in the sand" to guide future sport pilots. I completely support Trent's willingness to appeal, because I think "good law" (well, good regulation) will come out of it.

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