The Unintentional Aerobat

“Do you think it’s possible to fly aerobatics without knowing it?”

I frequently query students about this. I enjoy asking the question of flight review candidates almost more than aerobatic students, because it seems so out of left field. But as you’ll see in a moment, it’s quite relevant to the straight-and-level pilot.

Since I’ve bothered to ask the question, most of them suspect the answer is “yes” even though they don’t know why. I get that. It sounds preposterous! When one thinks of aerobatics, it involves an envelope so far removed from “normal” flying that it seems impossible a pilot could engage in such an activity without any awareness of the fact.

When pressed for an explanation of their answer, almost all of my students admit that they don’t understand how the answer could be yes. Some even protest that they’re not aerobatic pilots and wouldn’t know anything about it.

To explain the importance of the question, let’s look at two short videos. Choose the one you feel is aerobatic:

First, an RV-7 making a low pass at Feldkirchen Airport in southern Austria:

Next, a clip of Francesco Fornabaio flying a classic mid-wing Extra 300 at a European airshow in 2013:

If the second video looks like aerobatics while the first one is more like something you’ve done or seen other pilots do, then congratulations: you might be an Unintentional Aerobat!

The hitch in this giddyup is the definition of “aerobatics”. To the general public, it conjures up images of all-attitude flying accompanied by smoke and music, typically at an organized airshow. Pilots, on the other hand, often believe the term applies to maneuvers which exceeds 30 degrees of pitch and/or 60 degrees of bank relative to the horizon. Unfortunately, as far as the FAA is concerned, both those definitions are incorrect.

14 CFR 91.303 is the relevant law, and after listing the six places where aerobatic flight is prohibited, it goes on to provide a definition which is brilliantly short, sweet, and as clear as mud:

For the purposes of this section, aerobatic flight means an intentional maneuver involving an abrupt change in an aircraft’s attitude, an abnormal attitude, or abnormal acceleration, not necessary for normal flight.

Look again at that first video. Was that ~45 degree pitch angle and the accompanying acceleration during the pull “necessary for normal flight”? Even if you said yes — perhaps due to the aircraft’s speed and the surrounding terrain — it doesn’t matter, because the final arbiter of the question is the Federal Aviation Administration, and much like the prohibition on “careless and reckless” operation of aircraft in 14 CFR 91.13, the judgement about whether or not the shoe fits is made by them — not you.

Is that steep climbout "necessary for normal flight"?

Is that steep climbout “necessary for normal flight”?

Every pilot likes to have fun — myself included — but hopefully we can all agree that nothing spoils the party quite like a letter of investigation from the local FSDO. Considering the fact that video cameras are cheap and plentiful, a wise aviator will assume everything he or she is doing aloft is being recorded by someone in the plane, on the ground, via radar, or in the computerized avionics inherent in 21st century flying. Two years ago I wrote a post about this issue (see: Big Brother is Watching, January 2013). The only logical conclusion is that we are being monitored at virtually all times.

The question, then, is how one makes a wise decision about how far a maneuver can be taken before running the risk of legal trouble with the Feds. I’d recommend you consider two things:

1. Am I doing something which is likely to attract the attention of others? If so, you can be sure eyes and cameras will be trained on you and your aircraft. Of the two, human eyeballs are usually more incriminating and less accurate than video, especially against a featureless sky. To an uninformed civilian, that 50′ low pass and pull up to 45 degrees undoubtedly looked like you mowed the grass with your propeller and then went “straight up”. Why do you care what people think? Because everyone carries a phone, and it’s a piece of cake to contact the FAA. Which brings us to item number two:

2. If an FAA inspector was watching me right now, would I be able to successfully defend my actions as “necessary for normal flight”? Use caution not to attach specific numbers (speed, altitude, pitch/bank, etc) to this. The determination depends entirely on what you’re flying. If I’m in a stock J-3 Cub, a 45 degree pitch up on takeoff is most certainly not normal. In my Pitts S-2B, however, with the 3-blade MTV-9 series prop and the ported/polished engine, the Vx climb attitude at solo weight is just about 45 degrees. Since Vx is a normal climbout speed for single-engine airplanes in urban areas, I think it’s quite defensible as necessary for both safety and environmental (read: noise) reasons.

I’ve seen everything from Skyhawks to Gulfstreams to R44s operated in a manner the pilot would be utterly unable to defend as “necessary for normal flight”. You probably have as well. Most of the time, nothing is said and nobody is the wiser. The pilot might not even realize he was engaging in what the FAA considers to be aerobatic flight. Ignorance of the law won’t get you very far when called on the carpet, though. The certificate and ratings you spent years earning can be lost very quickly if action precedes careful consideration.

Don’t be “that guy”.

  12 comments for “The Unintentional Aerobat

  1. Ron Smolinski
    February 27, 2015 at 5:03 am

    Does the FAA consider training maneuvers “normal flight”?
    Most, if not all maneuvers required for training are not done in “normal flight”.

    • February 27, 2015 at 10:14 am

      Great question! I’d can’t imagine that the FAA wouldn’t consider training maneuvers as “normal flight”. There are tens of thousands of active CFIs flying those maneuvers every day. There are also exemptions from some rules for flight training and checkride purposes, like the parachute exemption found in 91.307(d). Lastly, I’d guess that since many FAA inspectors and DPEs participate in flights where those maneuvers are performed, it must be okay. They’re also listed in many FAA publications ranging from the Airplane Flying Handbook to the Practical Test Standards.

  2. Jim
    February 27, 2015 at 11:43 am

    The entire 91.303 section only defines where you can not make “an intentional maneuver involving an abrupt change in an aircraft’s attitude, an abnormal attitude, or abnormal acceleration, not necessary for normal flight.” Sounds like the basis for the definition of a practice area. No one is going to practice stalls and steep turns directly over a city, right? And of course, you can legally violate any FAR in an emergency.

    If you’re out over an unpopulated area, outside of B, C, D, and any E airport area, not within 4 nm of an airway, and have >3 nm visibility and doing maneuvers that are “aerobatic”, you’re not violating 91.303. I’m wondering if it’s best to always have the GoPro recording my flights in case someone reports me being reckless just doing ground reference maneuvers. I can see how a rectangular course at 800 AGL might seem unusual to a non-pilot.

    It seems like you could easily justify that 45 degree climb-out if anyone complained, since it’s not abnormal (and probably not too abrupt). But 91.307 says you have to be wearing a parachute when you do it.

    Interesting topic.

    • February 28, 2015 at 9:27 am

      I searched Part 91 for any mention of the phrase “practice area” but came up empty. I’ve never heard it suggested that practicing stalls and steep turns over a city is illegal. Around here (Southern California), there’s no other option unless you want to work over the ocean. That has it’s own set of pitfalls, since much of the coastline is either in the departure path of a large airport (LAX, SAN, SNA, LGB, etc) or parallels a major airway with lots of IFR traffic. On the other hand, we’re flying 3,000-5,000 feet AGL when performing those maneuvers, so I doubt people on the ground hear much of anything.

      The GoPro idea is interesting. A lot of people are putting dash cameras in their cars for just that reason. In the event of an accident, they have a visual record of what happened. I don’t see why pilots couldn’t do the same thing, especially given the fact that so many of us enjoy reviewing video of our flights anyway.

      • Jim
        March 2, 2015 at 8:14 am

        Yeah we’re spoiled with lots of open fields within 20 miles. I never gave much thought to what “everyone knows” is the nearby VFR practice area, despite them not being charted anywhere. I remember my first lesson we headed east about 10 miles and my CFI said we stay between these lakes to the north and south, west of that tall antenna when practicing maneuvers. We were just to the SW of the nearby class C outer ring.

        When I joined the flying club based at that same class C, I went with a club CFI for my checkout and he said tell clearance delivery we would be vfr to the “north practice area” at 4000. We got a NNW heading after takeoff and the CFI said just go about 20 miles and then let’s do slow flight.

    • Matt P
      March 8, 2015 at 3:43 pm

      How about 91.303(e) which prohibits aerobatic manuevers below 1500agl anywhere.

  3. Doug
    February 28, 2015 at 5:15 am

    This should apply to helicopters too. Years ago while attending an airport picnic I witnessed a careless and reckless display of aeronautical ignorance demonstrated by the local helicopter instructor in a Robinson R22. Zoom climbs, pedal turns at zero airspeed followed by a mad dive to the deck and what we use to call a button hook approach for getting into a LZ. He included backwards flight while turning that had to be in excess of 20kts, several times it looked as though his tail skid would strike the ground and the helo would tumble into our group. All of this took place in proximity to about 200 people attending the picnic. It seemed like an eternity before someone talked some sense into this knuckle head. My wife’s comment was it was a nice day except for the show off in that helicopter.

    • February 28, 2015 at 9:10 am

      Good point. Helicopters have different criteria for some rules (minimum safe altitudes, for example), however 91.303 isn’t one of them.

      Your story reminds me of something I saw last year down in Brazil during the World Cup: an R44 pilot maneuvering wildly not five feet off the ground while in the middle of a ramp jam packed with jets. We actually took cover, convinced he was going to hit something with either the main rotor or the tail boom. The FBO employee who was there to greet us said “oh, he always does that”.

  4. Ken Thomas
    February 28, 2015 at 10:58 am

    If you are practicing a true short field takeoff over a TBD’ obstacle, you may get into this position of being accused of performing aerobatics especially if you are in an airport traffic area.

    How would the FAA classify “upset” training (used to be called spin training) since by definition, you are recovering from an “unusual attitude” (e.g., not normal flight)?

    Good question for discussion.

    • February 28, 2015 at 4:33 pm

      Upset recovery training — extreme unusual attitudes, spins, etc — are aerobatic by their very nature. Any UR training I’ve given or seen others provide uses the full 360 degrees of pitch and roll. I doubt the FAA would consider the attitudes and accelerations necessary for normal flight.

  5. February 28, 2015 at 3:58 pm

    I think he was evading a bird! 😉

    • February 28, 2015 at 4:20 pm

      There you go! And clearly the video’s resolution is too grainy to see the bird — but trust me, it was there. 😉

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