Every year that Crashed Ice is held in Saint Paul, the Pioneer Press publishes the most gorgeous photos of the event, taken from an airplane circling the Cathedral of Saint Paul. The term “jaw dropping” is not hype.
— Pioneer Press Photos (@PiPressPhotos) January 26, 2015
And every year safe pilots wince at the risk the photographer’s pilot takes to get this shot.
Granted it’s an oft-broken FAA rule, but it’s a rule nonetheless, and for good reason: If a plane loses either an engine or enters an unintentional spin, there’s no place to go but down.
§ 91.119 Minimum safe altitudes: General.
Except when necessary for takeoff or landing, no person may operate an aircraft below the following altitudes:
(a) Anywhere. An altitude allowing, if a power unit fails, an emergency landing without undue hazard to persons or property on the surface.
(b) Over congested areas. Over any congested area of a city, town, or settlement, or 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.
(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.
The Cathedral of Saint Paul rises 300 feet above the ground or about 1200 feet above sea level. But the airspace over the Crashed Ice event that protects planes landing at Minneapolis Saint Paul International Airport begins at 2300 feet. That gave the pilot, assuming he/she was observing the FAA regulations, a range of just 100 feet to navigate and stay “legal.” That satisfies (b) in the rule, but there’s no way to get the shot and comply with (a). (A pilot can ask for permission to enter the higher airspace, but it’s more difficult for the photographer to take the picture)
The protected airspace drops to the surface at the Saint Paul high bridge, requiring the pilot to make steep turns around the Cathedral. The airspeed at which an airplane stalls (loses its lift) increases in such a turn and, while possible, it’s somewhat difficult to navigate within 100 feet, making a steep turn, and keeping airspeed at a safe level.
It’s a beautiful picture. But if you’re looking for an example of why the FAA should allow news organizations to use quadcopters/drones for photography, this is one.