Is It Legal to fly in Charted Wilderness Areas?

Related: Who Owns the Air? | Criminal Violation Flying Over Park

I was working on the airspace video section that deals with wilderness areas — those lines with blue dots as shown at right — and thought it deserved some attention here. Pilots are “requested” to stay at least 2000 feet above any terrain within 1000 feet horizontally. But it’s only a request on sectional and terminal area chart margins. What’s up with that?

There are regulated areas, mind you, like the Grand Canyon, where Special FAR’s codify prohibited areas and violations are pursued for scofflaws. But for generic wilderness areas, avoiding overflight is voluntary. Remember, at one point, so was flying over the Grand Canyon so we need to be res ponsible.

The Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) also says “requested” to avoid overflight, reserving “prohibited” for landing. That’s a park rule, not the FAA’s. The park services don’t have jurisdiction over airspace but they still write rules about it and occasionally issue citations. You’ll probably win a court fight over jurisdiction but who wants the bureaucratic punishment?

Here is the AIM blurb:

7-4-6. Flights Over Charted U.S. Wildlife Refuges, Parks, and Forest Service Areas

a. The landing of aircraft is prohibited on lands or waters administered by the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or U.S. Forest Service without authorization from the respective agency. Exceptions include:

1. When forced to land due to an emergency beyond the control of the operator;

2. At officially designated landing sites; or

3. An approved official business of the Federal Government.

b. Pilots are requested to maintain a minimum altitude of 2,000 feet above the surface of the following: National Parks, Monuments, Seashores, Lakeshores, Recreation Areas and Scenic Riverways administered by the National Park Service, National Wildlife Refuges, Big Game Refuges, Game Ranges and Wildlife Ranges administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Wilderness and Primitive areas administered by the U.S. Forest Service.

Advisory Circular AC 91-36D, Visual Flight Rules (VFR) Flight Near Noise‐Sensitive Areas, defines the surface of a national park area (including parks, forests, primitive areas, wilderness areas, recreational areas, national seashores, national monuments, national lakeshores, and national wildlife refuge and range areas) as: the highest terrain within 2,000 feet laterally of the route of flight, or the upper‐most rim of a canyon or valley.

You could argue that our craft is not included, which is true, but this guidance is informative.

Another aspect is noise or wildlife disturbance laws which may avoid the whole jurisdiction issue (see figure 2 in sidebar). I can’t find any case law that supports this but wouldn’t be surprised if it was effective in court. In other words they don’t cite you for flying over anything, they cite you for either disturbing the wildlife or exceeding noise limits — the airspace issue is moot.

Most laws are about defining the border of your rights and others. If we can avoid making a big footprint we can avoid the motive force for new laws. Like so many things, we largely fly at the pleasure of the people, annoy enough of them off and we won’t fly there anymore.