This morning I went for a hang glider trike flight and found myself amidst small cumulus clouds a few hundred feet up. It was magical. Clouds served as pylons in the sky allowing me to climb, dive and turn around them in a way that made the sky feel like my playground. They felt like dance partners.
It also made me think about legality, perception and risk–how some people will look at these pictures, or watch from the ground, and ay “hey, that’s not legal!” Sometimes I would zoom climb above a cloud which, from below, would look like I’m plowing right through it. Overzealous FAA guys have made these kinds of mistakes with statements like “you were flying over those houses.” Reality is that the FAA pays very little attention to us but that’s how we want to keep it.
So how is this legal? FAR 103’s cloud clearance and visibility minimums are nearly identical to what airplane pilots must follow. If we’re in G airspace, which is essentially the whole country, and we’re below 1200′ above ground level (AGL), we only need a mile and clear of clouds. That’s it. These clouds were low, with bases at 700′ and tops less than 1100′ AGL so it was easy to stay in G airspace as shown in the illustration at right. Click to embiggen.
We really do have amazing freedoms here in the U.S. but, like all freedoms, they must be preserved. Freedom is never free.
Our land is about 130′ above sea level so here I’m around 900′. G airspace goes up to 1200′ AGL (700′ close to many airports) so as long as I keep this reading below 1300′ I’m good to remain clear of clouds and have 1 mile visibility.
What About The Risk?
So it’s legal in the right airspace but is it smart? There may be a modicum of extra risk because there could be someone else up there coming around the cloud that I don’t see. The only craft likely to be doing this are probably pretty slow, and can turn sharply to avoid going through the clouds. That’s why it’s so important not to fly *IN* the clouds. Pilots flying on instruments won’t be down here because airspace is designed to keep them higher.
Another thing is where I’m at. In the above picture you can my runway a couple miles north but I’m essentially the only one flying out there right now. There are a lot of little airplanes here, because it’s Florida and beautiful weather permeates mornings, but they’re nearly all up higher.
Not only can we fly our little craft like this but we don’t need to worry about the 500′ rule that mandates staying that far from any man-made thing. I can (and did) go play at 3 feet along fencerows among Serengeti-looking pastureland without worrying about someone sicking the law on me. Don’t disturb the cattle, or the people of course, but if stay clear of them, we’re good.
The freedoms we have here are remarkable, are like elsewhere in life, we must get along with fellow humans lest they rise up and make laws against us. So enjoy your flying, your dancing, and your pylons, but enjoy responsibly.