I have been flying for 30 years and have my IFR ticket.

However, during my private pilot training I was exposed to an abnormal number of flying deaths of people I knew (7 dead in 6 accidents over a period of a year and a half). Those accidents stay with me to this day. 

That series of horrific experiences over such a short period of time led me to develop a very low risk tolerance. It was etched into my brain that unless I flew every flight as safely as possible - I was going to die in a plane crash. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant, it's what has been stuck in my brain.

So one of my first rules of safety has always been altitude. Fly as high as reasonable on every flight. In my 601 I typically fly at 5500, and higher, when traveling any distance, with a minimum around 4500 feet for short flights. Altitude is life....

So I have 30 years of thinking that any flight below 1500 feet is going to get me killed (no, i'm not exaggerating!). However, I now live in a beautiful rural and scenic area with few, if any, obstructions over 100 feet. I have started wondering what it would be like to occasionally fly at 500 feet (this is scary low for me!) for a short scenic flight. 

So, I'm sure many low and slow pilots on this forum have never really considered my predicament. For many STOL pilots flying at 500 feet, is high. I'm wondering if there are some pilots who have been in my situation that did have to learn to get comfortable flying down low, and if so, what suggestions you might have? 

FYI - I have gotten very comfortable with handling my plane in all regimes. I can spot land it nearly every time. This is not an issue of learning my, or my plane's, capabilities. Its more over-coming fear of low flight. 

So did anyone take some sort of progressive approach to low and slow flight? If so, any suggestions for me? 

Maybe the real answer is just go out and do it until you get comfortable, but I thought I would ask the experts here first. 


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Gary I always find your posts to be very insightful and honest and by that I mean you say what you really feel....and I pay attention.  To me you seem like a very accomplished pilot with no ego (which is really good). I fly at 500’ a lot depending on terrain...lots of places to land. But I always go w my gut and am comfortable w that. 

Thanks for the kind words. I have a question - when your flying at 500 feet are you flying slower? ie: not at cruise speed - or does it simply depend on the situation?

I'm wondering if you have a different mind set down low when it comes to airspeed?

In one sense airspeed can be traded for altitude. In another, slower speed gives more time to react to an obstruction, bird, drone, meteor (jk!), whatever... 

try flying at 1000' agl for a while, I do many xc at this alt. keeps you out of trouble or 1500'. 500 is OK but I usually fly cautious always climbing to 500'. even in pattern . there on up to the  above altitudes, then cruise away. Plan for towers, or in your area winds from terrain for me 500' midfield base leg usually from 1000' pattern here

worked for me for 50 years, not counting lower in helos...another story.

stay safe

This makes sense and I will try this. Thanks!

My routine mission for many years was file IFR routinely and fly my 206 back and forth across the state (long-ways ... Tennessee is a long state!). So, the flight profile was climb as soon as ATC allowed to 8000-9000' and stay there until time to descend and land.  When I retired to the Sequatchie Valley - a rural, scenic area - I knew "low and slow" was my new mission and I needed the STOL 750!  I fly in the Valley mostly at 500 AGL so as to not run afoul of getting reported to the FAA by some crank - However, I've surveyed my neighbors many times and they universally seem to love seeing me fly by! I found that 3 things helped me get comfortable with "low and slow:" 

  • An A&P friend of mine steered me away from a conventional round gauge panel and initially I went with a GRT EIS6000 engine monitor (and later a MGL XTreme EMS engine monitor).  This allowed me to install a big 'ole red "idiot light" high in the panel that would illuminate if any engine parameter was abnormal.  It's very noticeable, even in the very periphery of my vision when looking outside. That way, I could keep my head-down time to a minimum and keep my eyes outside the cockpit: no red light, all's good!  :>)
  • I fly mostly in a local area and know the terrain and obstructions pretty well.  However, I have an iFly GPS which has a terrain/obstructions map and it gives an early warning of towers, etc., that might be on my flight path.  One certainly can't rely 100% on this, but I'll take all the help I can get!
  • I had a lot of glider time and was used to flying slow and also constantly mentally noting possible out-landing sites.

I think those are the top three factors I found helpful in having comfort with low and slow.



Thank for the ideas John!

I like the engine monitoring idiot light - that makes a lot of sense. I don't have that capability.

I DO have an IFly GPS with the synth vision - but never thought of using it in this manner - thanks for the idea!

FYI -  that synth vision saved my (and my wife's) bacon last year. I never thought I would really use it - seemed more like a cool idea. That is until I stupidly got trapped in a layer of smoke and unable to climb as I would lose sight of the ground - and I was in a valley between two mountains. That synth vision provided a sense of security in a very tight situation that could have gotten a lot worse. My decision making that day has since gone in the "never again" file... 

Merry Christmas and thanks for the response!

If you use 1000’ agl and above , chances are you will never receive a call from FAA , from some concerned citizen, after all you and I fly a low wing


I would start by selecting a local area route you are comfortable with. Then do a thorough map recon of the area and your route looking for obstacles, both man made (wires, towers, etc.) and natural. Consider obtaining a lower scale map than the VFR sectional you’re used to using and making a sketch of your route and marking the obstacles on your map. You could then fly the route at an altitude you are comfortable with, and confirm the obstacles and any terrain restrictions you noted in your planning.  Also note where the good forced landing areas are along the route. When you are comfortable at doing so, progressively decrease your altitude when flying that same familiar route until you reach your personal comfort floor.  Consider taking another pilot along that is comfortable and experienced with low level flying. All this may sound a bit excessive, but the process is intended to ease your anxiety through the familiarization of the process of identifying risks and preparation through detailed planning. This how I was taught and I’m very comfortable down low now. Once you’re comfortable with flying your route down low, select another, perhaps just outside your local area, and repeat the planning and execution process.  And it’s OK to slow down a bit as you go down. I use the top of my white arc in my 701 as a typical low level (500 AGL) cruise speed. Also consider flying with a proficient back country pilot, not so much to learn how to get in and out of a confined area but more to brush up on how to coordinate pitch, roll, and power at slower air speeds. Alternatively just climb on up and do some slow flight/accelerated stall air work on your own. Oh, and as far as those large orbiting birds out there in your windscreen, just stay on heading and altitude. They will get out of your way. If you start maneuvering they will have to guess where to go to avoid you.

But more importantly consider pondering why you are not comfortable with flying down low. I wonder if many of the fatal accidents that you observed when you began flying may have been caused by a lack of experience, or making decisions without first attempting to identify the associated risks. With 30 years of flying experience that’s all behind you now,  you have the judgement that will keep you out of trouble. I hope you are successful as flying low and slow, although bearing a different set of risks than cruising up high, is very enjoyable and rewarding.

More great ideas! I really like the concept of a thorough plan. Never considered that either.

So, I took a moment to consider the accidents as you suggested. Five of the six accidents were avoidable. One, probably not. It was this one that was most traumatic for me. Its likely has everything to do with my concerns over flying down low.  

Now I’ve started thinking about this event I feel the need to elaborate, if for no other reason than to maybe get it out of my head. Twenty-eight years later and this still rocks me to my core.


I know part of what I will explain sounds bizarre, or like something I dreamed up after the fact. It may be relevant to know that I am not a religious person, nor was I then. All I can say is this is what happened.


It also made me consider that, perhaps, there is some supernatural entity that does try to reach out to us sometimes. Maybe to warn us? Maybe to teach us? And yes, I know that sounds weird. You can decide for yourself.


I don’t remember the date. It was around 26 to 28 years ago and began at Petaluma Airport in northern California. I was taking the local FBO’s 152 up for a late afternoon flight. I was a new pilot and every flight was amazing to me. It was a beautiful evening. Sky clear, winds calm.


I taxi out to the runup area of two-niner. As I’m doing my pre-takeoff checklist a call comes in over the radio. There is a pilot inbound for landing. He calls, “Mustang (something or other) on a right 45 for two-niner”.


That aircraft identifier got my attention, and I decided to delay my take-off to see what I thought was a P-51.


The plane turns final and I see this is no P-51. It’s a beautifully polished Midget Mustang. It’s just glowing in the sunlight. I have never seen one before and it is beautiful!


The approach speed is fast. Way faster than my 152. I am honestly in awe of this plane and this pilot. (I was enthusiastically young then, and you didn’t see many home-builts back then). I noticed how close together the main gear was and how the aircraft wobbled as the tiny wheels set down at slightly different times.


I’m grinning from ear to ear as I realize the pilot is exiting the runway and is coming right back towards me to take off. No way I’m missing this! I stay parked in the run-up area and he pulls up in front of me.


The guy has a white scarf on, just like in the movies! Its hard for me to relate the excitement of how cool this pilot, and his awesome plane, struck me. I was young, it was a different time, whatever, I was in awe.


We make eye contact and I wave him on. He grins back at me and gives me a wave. I’m still grinning like an idiot and wave back.


He closes the throttle and this beautiful machine, and very cool pilot, roll down the runway. It comes off the runway and climbs out at an extreme angle. Wow!


As this little rocket ship is screaming skyward, I have a momentary rational thought. Perhaps it is to make me feel better about flying a lowly 152, so I say out loud, “Yeah, but he’d never be able to land that in a farmers field”. I DID say this, and it is the beginning of the strangest experience of my life.


So, my grin fades and I get back to the very serious business of taking off in my little plane. I run my checklist and everything is in the green. I note the time, 5:01 pm, 5:01…


Checklist complete, I roll down the runway and lift off. The plane is running perfect, wind is very light and nothing but blue sky above and green hills below.


I’m passing through 800 feet and my engine stutters. THAT gets my attention! It happens again. Crap, something is wrong with my engine! I check the gauges, but I’m a little panicked. I think everything is ok. I check the fuel valve and it is set right.


“Keep climbing!” I tell myself. The engine shuddering gets worse as I pass through a thousand feet.


“Turn back now!” I tell myself. I am not acting like a calm professional. I am in panic mode. I don’t want to die.


I guess some of my training is kicking in because I’m mostly doing the right things.


I get on the downwind and suddenly the shuddering stops. The engine is running smoothly again. But I’m shaking badly. I’m scared I’m not going to be able to land the plane because I’m so freaked out.


And I’m afraid the engine is going to quit on me.


It doesn’t, and I manage to land the plane ok. I park it, tie it down and collapse against a hangar wall. I can’t stop shaking. I don’t know how long I sat there but it was a long time.


This wasn’t the end of this story, however.


It’s after work the following day and I’m on the ferry boat from San Francisco on my way home. I buy my usual newspaper and start reading. And there it is on the second page.


“Pilot Killed After Forced Landing”, reads the story title. It talks about the homebuilt aircraft called a Midget Mustang. It says the pilot “tried to land it in a farmers field, but the aircraft cart-wheel and the pilot died.” This great pilot and his beautiful plane are gone. Balled up in an empty farmer's field.


The article notes the time. “Witness’s reported seeing the crash at 5:05 pm….”, the exact same time my engine was failing.


I am sick to my stomach.


Why him? Why not me? Why didn’t he have more altitude?  There were 3 airports very close by.


I never knew him, but I was the last one to see him alive. I still cry over this.


The series of coincidences is just too bizarre. Like my statement about “he’d never be able to land that in a farmers field”. And the time. His engine failed completely at the exact same time mine was shuddering.


The A&P checked the 152 and found no problem. Maybe it was just carb ice. Maybe. Or maybe someone, somehow, was trying to teach me a lesson???


Altitude is life?


I guess it doesn’t take a psychologist to see why I have a fear of flying down low.    


First of all, thank you for sharing this, it takes courage.

I have learned that given enough time, and unfortunately, it’s not much, in a room full of pilots with a reasonable amount of flying experience in their logbooks, every single one of us in that room will personally know someone who died flying an airplane. I know many. Flying is just terribly unforgiving of a lack of planning or judgement, and sometimes, even if you’ve planned and possess good judgement, it’s still not enough. But that’s part of accepting those risks when you buckle in.  In fact, you could say the same thing about driving a car. Did you ever follow up and find the NTSB report for that midget mustang accident?  Did he have a catastrophic inflight structural failure or did he run out fuel? Most of my former military pilot acquaintances quit flying when they retired and have no desire to ever pilot an aircraft again. Maybe this is why. Who knows. I too took a break from flying but every time I heard a airplane overhead I looked up. One day a few years ago, I decided flying is how I want to live, and if, in spite of my best effort, flying is how I die, then I die flying. I accept that every time I strap in, and so does my wife when she sits beside me in our little plane.  

Best to you, and I pray you will find peace, whether you decide to fly high or low, or fly at all, it is a very personal decision.

This happened before the internet. I never even found out his name because the paper didn't identify him. I've tried to find the accident in the b NTSB database a number of times but no luck. Today it dawned on me that I must have the actual date recorded in my log book. I've logged every flight I've taken in 30 years of flying - and always included a description be of the flight. I'm going to check my log book tomorrow. Maybe I can locate the NTSB report from the actual date.

I flew experimental helicopters many years ago, and that was low and slow. I witnessed a crash and burn accident, which as you say, stuck in mind forever. It took more than 25 years to regain confidence to get back in the air. Like you say altitude is our friend, and I climb to 2500  as a minimum and only go lower  for landings. I prefer to be in the air higher to be able to see what is on the other side of the ridges, flying lower is like driving on the road. Why be in the air if you prefer that road view?


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