FAA rules on Trent Palmer inspection pass case, could predict trouble for bush pilots

Backcountry flying enthusiast, private pilot, and YouTuber Trent Palmer posted a video last week announcing the FAA has taken action to suspend his pilot certificate after an inspection pass over a private airstrip that the FAA says was below the minimum altitude.

Palmer lives in Reno, Nevada, and has over 1,100 flight hours. He is well known for his YouTube videos where he lands on backcountry strips in his red, white, and blue STOL Kitfox V.

The event that prompted Palmer’s license suspension

On November 24, 2019, Palmer made an inspection pass in his Kitfox over a private airstrip that was located on his friend’s property in a sparsely populated area. Due to the conditions of the strip, Palmer did not pursue the landing. Palmer stated in the video that on short final he was not able to identify the touchdown point for the landing spot, the intended centerline, or the direction that the runway ran, which prompted his aborted landing.

A neighbor’s security camera captured Palmer’s low pass and was sent to the FAA. An inspector of the Reno Flight Standards District office called to request a meeting with Palmer. In that meeting, the video was shown to Palmer and discussed with the initial implication being that he would lose his certificate for 210 days.

The regulations the FAA claims Palmer violated

The FAA later contacted Palmer and claimed he violated regulations 14 CFR 91.13, which prohibits the careless and reckless operation of an aircraft, and 14 CFR 91.119(a) and (c), which describe minimum safe altitudes. 91.119 goes into further detail that you must fly at a minimum altitude that will allow for an emergency without undue hazard to persons or property if a power unit fails. In addition, you must operate no lower than 500 feet above any person, vessel, vehicle, or structure except when necessary for takeoff or landing.

In Palmer’s initial call with his attorney and the FAA attorney, he tried to explain the necessity of a low-level inspection pass when landing off-airport. In the video, Palmer referred to the FAA’s Off Airport Ops Guide which recommends multiple inspection passes to verify the state of the runway is safe for landing. The guide states, “if you are becoming less comfortable, abandon the site and seek a more suitable landing area,” which is what Palmer did.

Following that call, Palmer began the legal battle with the FAA and the case went to a hearing. The hearing, which lasted 5 days, resulted in the administrative law judge (ALJ) ruling on the case that because Palmer didn’t land the aircraft, the low pass maneuver wasn’t necessary for takeoff or landing. In addition, the ALJ said that the airstrip wasn’t an acceptable landing site because there was no windsock, runway lights, or runway markers. As a result of the ALJ’s ruling against Palmer, the FAA suspended his license for 60 days. He has appealed the decision and is able to fly pending the results.

What this ruling could mean for Palmer

Palmer stated in the video, “the problem here is the precedents or the case law that is established by the decision.” Therefore, if this ruling is not overturned and another individual has a similar case, the FAA will refer to FAA v. Palmer to make their decision.

If Palmer would have pursued the potentially dangerous landing, the FAR 91.119 violation would not have been a part of this case and there likely would not be a case. This is worrisome for bush pilots and backcountry pilots because if the judge’s ruling stands there will be external pressures put on pilots to make risky landings to avoid facing a violation of FAR 91.119.

Palmer said, “This ruling, if allowed to stand, will make off-airport operations illegal.” This would take away the freedom many pilots associate with flying and the ability to reach hard-to-access areas.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) has taken to Twitter to support Palmer and voice their concern for the FAA’s handling of the case. 

Since Palmer’s initial YouTube notifying his subscribers of his suspension, he has posted a follow-up video. He talks about the safety considerations when flying low in the backcountry and preparing for off-airport landings. Palmer is a great advocate for general aviation and shows his viewers the freedoms and fun associated with flying.

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