Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Land of the Free

While I find myself ranting on the subject of things we shouldn't take for granted: I was thinking about how incredibly unrestricted we are in the pursuit of our crazy passion for airtime. There's no type of flying that enjoys less oversight by the FAA than ours. How great is that? Sometimes it's hard to believe something so much fun can actually be legal, and yet, it's not only legal, it's practically free from regulation. We only have a handful of simple restrictions, and other than that, we're free to enjoy the air any way we please.

Here are the four major restrictions most of us need to remember:

1. Don't fly at night, beginning at 30 minutes after sunset.
2. Don't fly over congested areas or assemblies of people.
3. Don't fly in the clouds - ground reference must be maintained.
4. Don't fly in class A,B,C or D airspace without prior permission.

These are not burdensome restrictions! Think about how many more regulations we have to deal with just to drive a vehicle to the flying site! Staying clear of these four issues is not hard. Out of the thousand or so things we might want to do while flying, these 4 are an amazingly tiny list of things to avoid in order to enjoy the other 996. The vast majority of our flights are easily conducted without having to worry about these four restrictions.

Now, we all know that I'm the farthest thing from a perfect law-abiding person, and I have probably run afoul of all of these issues at one time or another, under unusual and hopefully mostly accidental circumstances. I cannot sit on a high horse and judge anyone for their mistakes. But I do think it's in our interest to understand this short list of rules, and also to make a reasonable and continued effort at abiding by them. We certainly can't abide by them if we don't understand them. I worry that if we don't know the rules, or we find ourselves somehow compelled to conspicuously or regularly flout the few rules we have, the privilege of self regulation could easily be rescinded. Each one of us has a small shared responsibility to uphold the few regulations we have so we can all continue to enjoy the privilege of not having to deal with heavier regulations. Let's keep free flying as free as possible!

Many of us might ask ourselves: who cares? Who is even paying attention? Well, I don't think we're as invisible as we imagine. We once had a DLNR officer complain to the FAA about class B airspace infringement at Diamond Head. We have heard questions about our presence in airspace and near clouds from GA pilots (who know the rules pretty well because they have to abide by their own even stricter set of rules). We've heard from helicopter tour pilots about our clearance from the clouds. We've heard from tower personnel in the military bases about airspace encroachment. We've had residents near our flying sites write in to the newspaper asking about the legality of our flying over their neighborhoods and near clouds. And these are only the complaints and questions that we've actually heard about!

The basics of our few regulations are pretty obvious. As for how they apply to our flying here on Oahu, here are the details as I understand them, based on many years of trying to figure it all out:

1. Night flights. We can fly up to 30 minutes after the official time of sunset. We must have a flashing light visible up to 3 statute miles during that 30 minutes. Ask Nightshift (Wayne) about this - he's the recognized expert! We can fly in this twilight period whether or not there is a full moon lighting things up for us. Of course it's cooler when the moon is in the sky!

2. Congested areas. This clause was included in the FAR in an effort to prevent a catastrophic accident in a populated area. There is no definition or map of what constitutes a congested area - it can be interpreted any way the courts decide in a given case. So it's sort of up to our common sense, which is always a good guide anyway. But most accept this to mean developed areas of a city or town. It doesn't mean we can't fly over a house. It just means we should stay clear of densely developed or crowded areas. Kahana, Kaaawa, Punaluu Valleys? Probably not considered congested. Manoa or Kalama Valleys? I'm guessing they would be considered congested.

3. Clouds. The main point of this clause is to prevent collisions with other aircraft. It's sort of connected to the next section about airspace, since the rules vary depending on what class of air we're flying in. The most basic point is that we must maintain visual reference to the ground. If we can't see the ground, we're not doing it right! Also, on most parts of the island, if we are within the layer of air that is 1,200 feet above the terrain, we are in class G airspace, and we only have to make sure we are clear of the clouds, which basically means not flying in them. It gets a little trickier when we're more than 1,200 feet over the terrain. Then we are in class E airspace which requires that we stay 500 feet below the clouds, or 1,000 feet above them (not too likely on this island!), or 2,000 feet to the side of them. And we have to be able to see the airspace around us for 3 statute miles.

Here's a real world example. Let's say we're at 2,500 feet above sea level, hovering over Puu Piei at the back of Kahana. That peak is 1,750 feet above sea level in elevation, which means we have up to 2,950 feet above sea level, as we hover directly above the pinnacle of the peak, to remain simply clear of the clouds. But as we glide out from there horizontally, we will soon be more than 1,200 feet above the terrain, and then we must remain 500 feet below the clouds or 2,000 feet to the side. Typical cloudbase out there is around 2,500 feet above sea level on a decent day, so that would mean remaining at 2,000 feet above sea level or below, as we head out over the bay, to give ourselves 500 feet of clearance. This is generally not that hard.

Or let's say we want to follow a cloud street from Greenwalls to Olomana. While we're flying along Greenwalls, we are probably less than 1,200 feet above the ridge, so we are in class G airspace, which means we just have to be clear of clouds. As soon as we head out over Waimanalo, we're more than 1,200 feet above the terrain, in class E airspace now, and we need to stay 500 feet below the clouds (or 2,000 feet to the side).

There are a few places we fly where the 1,200 foot line moves down to 700 feet: at Lanikai; at Kualoa, starting above Kaaawa Valley and extending over the ranch and beach park; and also at Tantalus and Diamond Head. So in those places, if we are less than 700 feet above the terrain, we only have to stay clear of clouds, but if we're more than 700 feet above the terrain, which would be pretty often, then we must stay 500 feet below or 2,000 feet to the side of the clouds.

4. Airspace. Again, this is about preventing collisions. If we want to fly in class A, B, C or D airspace, we need permission from the control tower of the associated airport. Honolulu Class B starts at 4,000 feet above sea level at Koko Crater and Koko Head, and drops to 1,000 feet above sea level at Diamond Head. Without permission, we need to remain below those floor heights. On the other end of the island, the power plant and Ko Olina resort are covered by a confluence of Kalaeloa class D and E as well as Honolulu class B airspace, down to the surface. Class D airspace surrounds the Kaneohe marine base and the Wheeler airfield, from the surface to a ceiling of 2,500 feet above sea level at Kaneohe, and a ceiling of 3,300 feet above sea level at Wheeler. Without permission, we need to remain above those ceiling heights.

Pilots flying cross country on the windward side need to know that the Kaneohe class D airspace covers Kailua Beach Park, the hill behind Windward Boats, Kawainui Marsh, the Kailua Dump, the frontmost tip of the peaks that form the shoulders of Haiku Valley, all of Temple Valley and Heeia, as well as Hygienic Store and Kahaluu Regional Park. Without permission, we need to stay higher than 2,500 feet above sea level if we're going to fly over those areas.

Pilots flying cross country over central Oahu need to remain higher than 3,300 feet above sea level over the Wheeler airspace, and may not fly below that height there without prior permission. I am not sure, but I think there might be exceptions to the class D hours on weekends and holidays. As soon as I figure that out I'll post the details.

Some great references:

FAR 103 (with preamble, which is pretty enlightening)
Rob McKenzie's excellent discussion of airspace
Jim Macklow's great discussion of airspace
Download the Google Earth overlay of Hawaii airspace
Online worldwide sectional charts (zoom in to see Hawaii)

If anyone can offer any updates or clarifications to these regulations, especially all you paraglider pilots who also happen to be GA or commercial pilots, please let me know and I'll amend this article. I think it could turn into a good reference for new or visiting pilots here.


allanc said...

This is very helpful and does a really great job of summarizing the regulations as they relate to flying here on Oahu. How are we going to make it from the Waianae range at Nanakuli to the North Shore without breaking any of these rules. May need to get permission from Wheeler if we ever dare to dream of making that flight.

Alex said...

Thanks, Allan. And that's a good question. You can fly from Nanakuli to the North Shore just the way we tried to do last week, by staying on the west side of the range, and then hop over the back at Makua. Or you could hop over the back of Nanakuli and then thread your way around the Wheeler airspace. And you could certainly see about getting permission! It would be interesting to know how that works.

Anonymous said...

If you think this is difficult you should review some of the TFR s that flight clubs have to adhere to in VA/WV/MD/DC area, and then consider the amount of flyable season they actually have! Many of the TFR s are actually moot after 911 and in order to fly they must contact Secret Service ETC. and also near Camp David look out for the USAF they will force you out of the air if necessary! We have it good, I hope we can keep it that way! They are a bunch of great pilots here, and they envy our situation on Oahu!!! GAZA!!!

Anonymous said...

Air Boss Tony at Wheeler Tower is happy to hear of our flying and hopes someday to got up in a tandum flight . We just need to call in on their ATC to be clear to fly up here .
Great articals Alex ,thanks again for making it so much clearer on the rules

firedave2 said...

That journey over wheeler and scofield might have been done already. For the record, I remained above 3300' for the entire transition. http://www.windlines.net/2006/12/kukaniloko-birthplace-of-alii.html

JK said...

From a GA/ATP perspective, it might be a good idea to coordinate our flying activity with FSS, particularly when flying XC. We do a good job calling the fire department. Perhaps one more phone call to FSS (or radio call) could get the word to GA pilots. It may bring unwanted attention too. Just a thought....

allanc said...

@Dave - thanks for pointing me to the article. I was not indicating that no one had ever made the trip, just have not known of any recent attempts in the time AD (after Doug). It seemed like the world of paragliding was quiet different in the good old days, maybe we can get there again next chance we have.

nightshift said...

Alex, that was a well written and well timed blog. This club has expanded rapidly of late, and that means more fun. But also more problems, simply because of more incidents that may be noticed by average earthlings who do not understand what we do. I'll never forget the meeting at Bob's place when you said, "The reason we have a paragliding association is because it's all about site preservation." Right on the money.
I have always endeavoured to land 30 minutes after sunset at Kahana, and always with strobe and nav lights. Yes, perhaps I pushed the envelope at MPU, but I always launched in official daylight, and never performed aerobatics or wingovers at night. Then again, I never do aerobatics during daylight!
You are performing your duty as president by giving us shit when we deserve it.