Is it legal to fly under a bridge?
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Answered By AOPA
Is it legal to fly under a bridge?
6 Replies
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AOPA Staff Answer
No. Minimum safe altitude requirements state that over congested areas of a city, town, or settlement, 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. So, we shouldn’t even get close enough to be able to fly under one.
Daddis At AOPA‍ 
I have no doubt that the FAA would certainly consider a pilot flying under a bridge to be endangering another person's property.  Being in full capacity to handle an aircraft properly it is well within a pilot's ability to avoid flying under a bridge, which they should, especially considering the regulation quoted from in my initial response.  Which I should add is a regulation that addresses safety.  So if it isn't safe, it isn't legal.

The only conclusion to be drawn is that the pilot simply didn't care about the prohibitions mentioned in the regulations governing minimum safe altitudes or careless and reckless operation.  Additionally one could argue that even at altitude in clear skies with no traffic a pilot flying recklessly endangers the life and property of others below him.  If an accident were to happen (say...a wing separation, fuel starvation, or other cause of engine failure, etc.) the pilot might not be able to avoid dropping the aircraft on another person or their property.  To endanger the life or property of another, honestly, is not conjoined.  The FAA has stated that when an "or" is used its purpose is to separate the articles.  So one can fly either careless or one could fly reckless and either of those on their own can have the effect of endangering life or it could have the effect of endangering property separately and still be a violation of that regulation.

The vagueness is intentional, so as to cover a multitude of circumstances without having to have several volumes of regulations.  We have enough of them as it is.  And as my Flight Safety instructor who taught regulations once said, "Ever regulation in that book is to keep you safe and made it there because someone thought it was a good idea to write it or someone else thought it was a good idea to do something stupid and they don't want you to think the same thing."

Ronald Levy‍  - one would think a legal decision wouldn't have to be researched on the subject, however, we do appreciate the level of effort and knowledge you bring to the Online PIC.  So if the mood strikes you please do post.  I would be curious how the FAA wording addresses the issue.
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The bridge belongs to someone.  Might be a governmental or corporate entity, but it is within this context "the...property of another".  I'm pretty sure this legal argument was addressed and dismissed on that ground in a case some time ago, but I don't remember the specifics.  I'll have to do some research to find it, and that won't happen tonight.
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Ron - thank you for the additional input. Your post brings up another good topic to discuss regarding careless and reckless. What is your take on this? 91.13(a) addresses operating in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another. The two are conjoined. Flying reckless, by itself, is not a reg vioation. If a pilot is flying his personally owned airplane, solo, and flies under a bridge, that may be seen as careless or reckless; however, he has endangered no other person or no one else's property. Is he still in vioation of 91.13(a)? I think not. What do you say?
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Daddis At AOPA:

Federal Aviation Regulations are commonly prohibitive, not permissive. They tell pilots what they cannot do, not what they can do. No regulation states a pilot may fly under a bridge; however, it is not specifically prohibited, either. If no prohibition can be found, then an operation is permitted by that lack of prohibition.


That's not quite true.  Just because no other specific regulation was violated doesn't mean a finding of careless/reckless operation cannot stand on its own.  To quote the NTSB in Administrator v. Murphy:

"It is well-established that conduct can violate section 91.13(a) even if it does not violate any other regulation. See Administrator v. Jaax, 5 NTSB 1616 (1986) (the Board rejected respondent's contention that the Administrator failed to cite a substantive violation -- respondent's failure to adhere to safe operating practices while taxiing violated 91.9 [recodified as 91.13(a)]; Administrator v. Russo, NTSB Order No. EA-3800 at 8 (1993) (no underlying violation is necessary to support a 91.9 violation)."

See also Administrator v. Pisarek and Administrator v. Colvig,

So, while it might be possible to comply with 91.119 if the bridge bottom was more than 500 feet above the water, there were no "vessels" on the water, and you had more than 1000 feet between the vertical structurers supporting the bridge (500 on either side), there's always that pesky 91.13 careless/reckless rule.

Bottom line is if the FAA catches you flying under a bridge, they will get you on 91.13 if nothing else.
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Upon further reflection and contemplation -- this question asks is it legal to fly under a bridge? Not is it safe, or a good idea, or a recommended practice. The legality would consider any regulatory prohibitions and, if none can be applied, then yes, flying under a bridge would be legal. Consider the regulatory prohibition in FAR 91.119(c) - " no person may operate an aircraft below the following altitudes:  (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."

Consider a bridge in a sparsely populated area. It is a structure and it likely has either a road or railroad tracks on it for cars or trains to cross; they are vehicles with persons inside. The bridge spans a gorge with a river at the bottom, which may have boats upon it; they are vessels. However, if the bridge were more than 500 feet above the river surface, it may very well be legal to fly under it. Assuming no boats were floating on the river, a flight under the bridge would meet all the regulatory requirements and therefore be legal by regulations. In this sparsely populated area, flying 500 feet above the ground is not required; any altitude can be flown above the river.

Federal Aviation Regulations are commonly prohibitive, not permissive. They tell pilots what they cannot do, not what they can do. No regulation states a pilot may fly under a bridge; however, it is not specifically prohibited, either. If no prohibition can be found, then an operation is permitted by that lack of prohibition.

This is not a dissertation to convince someone to fly under a bridge; rather, to cause one to turn a critical eye to the regulations we operate under to fully understand and appreciate their meaning.