Permission to Buzz the Airport?

If you’ve watched Top Gun remember that Maverick, after asking the tower for a low pass which is denied, does it anyway resulting in some spilled coffee and a lecture.  The question came up the other day regarding the legality of low passes. It’s not as straight forward as you might think and if you do it in the wrong time and place there could be an enforcement action.

The minimum altitude regulation specifies (generally) maintaining at least 1,000 feet above a person, place or thing unless the intention is to land. Clearly, a pass at high speed and/or with the landing gear up is evidence that landing wasn’t really a serious consideration.

If the airport has an operating control tower then approval is available from the tower as  in “cleared for the option” or for a low approach. At non-towered airports there is no such approval mechanism. But wait, people fly over the runway all the time. It seems to depend on context. If you’re somewhere close to landing speed in a fixed gear aircraft or the gear is down and decide to go around due to a squirrel on the runway, that’s pilot prerogative.

But if the pass is made 40 knots faster than landing speed, diving at the end of the runway followed by a steep pull up it may be a little harder to convince the inspector that you really intended to land.

John Yodice addressed this in a 2008 article, Pilot Counsel: What is a “congested area”?

It involves a Gulfstream II and the aircraft is not configured for landing. The question is do you feel lucky and are you willing to bet a suspension (never mind the occasional accident that occurs as a result of steep pull ups at the end of the pass)?  I am told you can get a waiver from FAA if this is something that you feel compelled to do – That’s a discussion to have with the FSDO.


  1. There’s an additional consideration–steep pullups and banks that follow many low passes may violate 91.303, which defines “aerobatic flight” as:

    “…an intentional maneuver involving an abrupt change in an aircraft’s attitude, an abnormal attitude, or abnormal acceleration, not necessary for normal flight.”

    Note there’s no mention of specific pitch or bank angles (those numbers are in the rule about wearing parachutes, 91.307).

    So even if you can persuade the friendly FSDO inspector that you really intended to land, that showoff climb and bank may still get you in trouble.

  2. I’d write it off as a training maneuver.
    Have you ever been asked to maintain best forward speed during an approach, so they don’t have to resequence a heavy behind you?
    Ever see an AG sprayer flying a field?
    Makes sense for me to train so you know what you and your plane can do safely and act accordingly.
    Makes sense to practice over a runway where you know there’s no wires/towers/obstacles.
    Personally – communicate intentions, stay within load/gforce limits, 30 pitch 60 bank, watch for accelerated stalls and keep an eye on airspeed on the way back up, remember safety and have fun 🙂

  3. Back before the Clinton Administration, when the dual mission of the FAA was to promote and regulate, the regs were mostly about safety. Anymore, the regs are all about scoring political points at the expense of mostly hapless pilots. The FAA/NTSB has become like the TSA, whose motto is: Intimidate, Dominate, Control.

    Is it any wonder so many pilots have called it quits?

  4. Being a helicopter pilot, I’m not that worried about a stall in the rapid pull up. It seems to me that at an uncontrolled airport, use common sense, announce your attentions and see and avoid.

    As far as enforcement actions, my experience has been there is no FAA standard. You are at the mercy of opinion of the FSDO inspector and thats just a fact of life.

  5. The “buzz job” advocates always seem to concentrate on the legality and FAA angles but ignore what can be termed the social aspects. I prefer to believe this is because it simply does not cross their mnds, because I would hate to think a member of our elite fraternity simply doesn’t give a d%&# about their effect on others.

    At a majority of small airports today there are ever-present concerns regarding how the neighbors perceive aviation and the noise it generates. An annoyed group of citizens can create untold grief for airport management (and by extension all users of the airport) and nothing is more likely to set them off than noise created by some activity they perceive as unnecessary.

    Most everyone probably enjoys or at least will tolerate a occasional buzz job by some unusual aircraft, say a P-51, but even pilots tend to get annoyed at “hey, look at me” noise when it becomes a routine thing generated by routine aircraft.

  6. Denny Cunningham

    July 15, 2011 at 12:40 pm

    As an air show air boss, I worked with a lot of different FSDO inspectors, and have had this discussion with a few of them– and while they have discretion, they are unanimous in their opinion that a low pass within 500′ of any person, vehicle, or structure (which can include the localizer shack alongside the runway, or the people occupying an airplane in the runup pad), CAN be the basis for an enforcement action.

    It doesn’t happen much, but it does happen. Example: I was working a show on a Saturday, and most of the airplanes performing in the show were arriving on Friday. It isn’t uncommon for the pilots of warbirds and other show planes to ask for a low pass prior to landing when they arrive, and a P-51 pilot did just that, and was approved by the tower. Three times.

    When he landed, he was greeted by the FSDO inspector, who was at the airport doing preparation for the Saturday air show. The inspector gently chided the pilot about the low passes, reminding him that the air show waiver wouldn’t be in effect until the next day. The P-51 pilot responded poorly, insisting that they were not low passes, they were “go-arounds”, and thus perfectly legal.

    The FSDO inspector was not amused, and responded that if it took four tries before the pilot was able to get the airplane on the ground, there was an even bigger problem here than he’d originally suspected. Things went downhill from there, paperwork ensued, and the pilot eventually found himself relieved to be able to resolve the situation with only a 709 ride.

  7. Dennis Stephen

    July 15, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    I live on a public grass strip where deer are often seen day and night on the runway. I have a habit of calling a “clearing pass” on the radio whereby I make a high speed pass at 10 to 50 ft above the runway and then return to land in the opposite direction. All announced on the radio. The “clearing pass” is to scare off any deer that may be on the runway, or about to come out of the woods at the side of the runway. Oh yes, its not only for safety; its also fun.

    Dennis Stephen

  8. I only pose the question then: What of banner towing??? They are under 1000 ft and near the beach…

  9. I was trained at an uncontrolled field with a heavy population of wildlife which would love to hang out on the runway. My instructor taugh me to always make a low pass to ensure no animals were present before landing. We would clear the runway then land. I think you can’t cookie cutter all rules and regs for all fields.

  10. The reason I don’t do high speed/low altitude flights is related to the conditions spelled out by Jeff. Most bird strikes occur at low altitudes. Why increase your chances for a serious bird strike by flying at high speeds just above the runway?

  11. Excellent info.

  12. John A Majane III

    February 5, 2018 at 7:27 am

    This is starting a sh*t storm on the internet. Personally I don’t think going high speed close to the ground where you are 1 second away from a rolled up ball of flaming aluminum is a great idea. Other things down low like birds can ruin your fun also.

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