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UAS Altitudes…Is 400 Feet Too High?

Posted 5 years 153 days ago ago by Randy Rowles

So, your flying along in a helicopter with passengers on a 14 CFR Part 135 flight. You’re operating at the highest level of safety for helicopter passenger transport; as an FAA Approved Air Carrier. So obviously Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) operations wouldn’t be permitted at your altitude…or would they?

The FAA permits a UAS to operate at an altitude up to 400 feet AGL. There are restrictions regarding operations within designated airspace, etc., however this altitude is the point of this discussion. 

A Part 135 operated helicopter is permitted to fly over congested areas at an altitude of not less than 300 feet AGL (Reference: 14 CFR Part 135.203(b)). This places passenger carrying Part 135 helicopter operators potentially in the same airspace as a UAS. In such cases, the ability to visually identify a UAS would be very difficult. Additionally, the ability for a UAS operator to see and avoid an approaching helicopter operating at such a low altitude would be quite challenging as well. Buildings and other objects in the area would limit the UAS operator’s ability to see the helicopter early enough to avoid a collision.

The FAA repeatedly stated that UAS would operate below those altitudes prescribed for other aircraft, however this is incorrect. This assumption was based upon the FAA’s understanding and laser point focus on 14 CFR Part 91.119(c) which limits aircraft to 500 feet AGL ‘over other than congested areas’. Additionally, 14 CFR Part 119(d) provides emphasis that helicopters operating below this altitude may be deemed unsafe if creating a ‘hazard to persons or property on the surface’. 

It is important to understand the operational and regulatory difference between 14 CFR Part 91.119(d) and Part 135(b). Where 14 CFR Part 91.119(d) provides a path to operate at lower altitudes, it leaves much discretion upon the FAA as to the safety of the operation. However, 14 CFR Part 135(b) is very specific as to the permissible altitude a Part 135 helicopter MAY operate, even over congested areas.    

It is a fact that UAS and a Part 135 operated helicopters are sharing airspace! 

Do you feel that the FAA should address the issue of the 100 feet overlap in airspace between UAS and Part 135 helicopter operations? Love to hear your thoughts on this. 

About Randy:  Randy Rowles has been a FAA pilot examiner for 20 years for all helicopter certificates and ratings. He holds a FAA Gold Seal Flight Instructor Certificate, NAFI Master Flight Instructor designation, and was the 2013 recipient of the HAI Flight Instructor of the Year Award.  Randy is currently  Director of Training at Epic Helicopters in Ft. Worth, Texas.