How to pick a local flight altitude…

Let’s take a look at a quick double-lesson I like to share with students and experienced pilots alike. When it comes to cross country flights, the FAA provides excellent guidance on cruising altitudes, but what about for quick, short, local flights?

When flying long distances more than 3,000 feet above the ground the FAA recommends flying at thousands of feet plus 500. For headings from 0/360-degrees to 179-degrees pilots should fly at odd thousands plus 500.  For headings between 180-degrees and 359-degrees pilots should fly at even thousands of feet plus 500. So, for Easterly flights 5,500′ and 9,500′ would be appropriate altitudes and for Westerly flights 4,500′ and 8,500′ would be appropriate altitudes.

But what about for local, short flights, what is a good altitude? Most pilots know the regulations require more than 500′ above in sparsely populated areas and 1000′ above densely populated areas. But the rule really reads:

     §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.

Section 91.119(a) in red above is pretty clear. The FAA is okay with a pilot maintaining at least the altitudes described as long as section (a) can be satisfied. In other words, a pilot is responsible for not creating a hazard for the general public on the ground.

Now that we’ve established this, let’s revisit the “double-lesson”. The first part is that everyone flies at “round” numbers or a few common altitudes. These includes 1,500′, 1,800′, 2,000′ and 2,500′. The big sky theory works well until it doesn’t and when a lot of pilots all go for the same altitude in a congested area, the big sky becomes very small very quick… So part 1 of the lesson is to fly at an “original” altitude figure – something along the lines of 2,250′ or 2,350′. It’s quite simple, not many pilots plan to fly at “odd” altitudes. So that’s part one, now on to part 2!


Let’s take a look at the route above, from 1B9 to TAN. It’s all of 11 miles and it’s about as easy as it gets when navigating from one place to another. That probably explains why TAN was the first airport I endorsed most of my student to fly to solo… This is a route I have flown many, many times and I enjoy bringing pilots of varying levels of experience on this very short, meaningful trip.

On one such flight I was flying with a student who was nearing their check ride, we were completing a mock check ride flight of sorts and I asked for him to depart Runway 32 at Mansfield and fly us to Taunton.

The first portion of the flight went very well, a good takeoff, we departed the pattern by flying straight out of the downwind leg of the traffic pattern and a gentle turn towards the South was setting us up for a 45-degree entry into the downwind for Runway 30 at Taunton. At about 1,600′ my student pushed the nose over, gained some airspeed, reduced the power and trimmed the aircraft. I was happy to see he didn’t pick 1,500′ but thought we might be a little lower than I’d prefer, but I was trying to evaluate his aeronautical decision making so I let the scenario play out as all indications were “green” with our engine, and I had no reason to suspect an issue.

We were just past half way between airports and were flying South to prepare for a 45-degree entry to the downwind for Runway 30 at Taunton. Our approximate location was just to the West of the yellow area associated with Taunton on the chart above. At that point I asked, “So, if the engine failed here, what’s your game plan?” The student looked around, and didn’t have a great answer. This was a gentle clue that at the 1,500′ altitude we didn’t have many options so it’d be a good idea to climb a little higher to expand our options.

My student didn’t take the hint and about 30 seconds later, while he was looking out the window for traffic to the left, I reached over and smoothly, but quickly reduced the throttle to idle, while announcing that we were simulating an emergency landing. My student reacted as expected – shooting for best glide while scanning for a good landing site, of which there weren’t any good ones. The despair set in as he selected a narrow road, which was the best option, he was running through the checklist when I announced we were ending the simulation. As my student initiated the climb I asked what altitude he was climbing to, his reply was a quick, “2,300′ for the rest of the way!”

In a few minutes we were beginning our descent into the traffic pattern at Taunton where he made a series of excellent landings, all of a different type, before we departed to head back to Mansfield at 2,300′, an altitude he chose on his own… I was a proud instructor that day, and again in the not too distant future when he aced his soon-thereafter check ride!

So that’s the quick double lesson – fly at “original” altitudes like 2,350′ and always give yourself a little cushion! There is no debate, 2,700′ is better than 1,700′ when it comes to giving yourself options in the event of an emergency…

-Fly Safe, @MTElia1B9


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