Late in the morning of June 29th, a helicopter flying and hovering over various parts of Petaluma’s East Side caught the attention of residents. It was, shall we say, a quite obvious event that brought to mind again the questions of safe operating altitudes and risks to residents in urban or congested areas…
© Frank Simpson, Petaluma, California
The helicopter in question (see above) was not an air ambulance or police agency unit. The only identification was the registration number, N64PJ…
© Frank Simpson, Petaluma, California
As aviation is regulated by the Federal Government, one has to turn to FAA regulations for guidance as to proper operating altitudes…
Sec. 91.119 – Minimum safe altitudes: General. 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.
- (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.[Docket No. 18334, 54 FR 34294, Aug. 18, 1989, as amended by Amdt. 91–311, 75 FR 5223, Feb. 1, 2010]
The FAA has a low flying aircraft complaint procedure outlining how citizens may register their concerns. The text of that procedure is set out below…
FAA Procedure for Low Flying Aircraft Complaints
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is the government agency responsible for aviation safety. We welcome information from citizens that will enable us to take corrective measures including legal enforcement action against individuals violating Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR).
It is FAA policy to investigate citizen complaints of low-flying aircraft operated in violation of the FAR, and that might endanger persons or property.
To Whom Should You Complain?
Within FAA, the Office of Flight Standards monitors aircraft operations. Locally, Flight Standards inspectors work in a Flight Standards District Office (FSDO).
“The facts, Ma ‘am, the facts!”
Before contacting the FSDO, remember that the FAA is a safety organization with legal enforcement responsibilities. So we will need facts before we conduct an investigation. To save time, please have this information ready when you call. And do keep your notes: we may request a written statement. Here is the type of information we need:
Identification – Can you identify the aircraft? Was it military or civil? Was it a high-or low-wing aircraft? Did you record the registration number which appears on the fuselage? (On U.S. registered aircraft, that number will be preceded with a capital ”N.”)
Time and place – Exactly when did the incident(s) occur? Where did this happen? What direction was the aircraft flying? What was the color?
Altitude – How high (low) was the aircraft flying? On what do you base your estimate? Was the aircraft level with or below the elevation of a prominent object such as a tower or building? Did you obtain photographs? Are there any witnesses who could confirm your estimate – do you have their names, addresses, telephone numbers?
Supporting Evidence: Witnesses, Police, Photographs
Do you know of any other witnesses? The more the better. Do you have their names, addresses? They may be contacted.
Are local police aware of the problem? While they have limited authority in aviation matters, police officers are considered ”trained observers” by the courts and their written statements or reports make excellent evidence should our enforcement action go to trial.
If you took photographs, we need to know the lens used, and the height of any identifiable landmarks that appear.
What FAA Will Do
Once we have the appropriate facts, an FAA aviation safety inspector from the local FSDO will attempt to identify the offending aircraft operator. We can do this in several ways. For example, we can check aircraft flight records with our air traffic control information and/or sightings from other observers, such as local law enforcement officers.
We may need to trace and contact the registered aircraft owner, since the owner and operator may be two different people.
Do you want feedback?
FAA welcomes assistance in identifying and prosecuting all violations of the Federal Aviation Regulations. Citizens complaining about low-flying aircraft will, upon request, be advised of the final results of the FAA investigation: be sure to give the FSDO your name, address and telephone numbers where you can be reached at home and at work.
If further information is required, please write: Community and Consumer Liaison Division, APA- 200, Federal Aviation Administration, Washington, D.C. 20591. During regular duty hours (7:30 a.m. – 4:0O p.m., Eastern Time, Monday through Friday), telephone (202) 267-3481.