The FAA’s short-term certificate suspension of YouTube pilot Trent Palmer has prompted discussion about federal aviation regulations governing backcountry flight operations and could, according to Palmer, pressure pilots to perform risky landings to avoid potential penalties.
Sitting in a hangar in front of his red Kitfox, Palmer took to his popular aviation YouTube channel Thursday, outlining his version of events that has spanned more than two years and has left him a step closer to temporary grounding by the FAA.
Palmer is an 1,100-hour private pilot and YouTube personality from Reno, Nevada. Most of his videos involve backcountry flying. The November 2019 incident occurred in what Palmer said was an inspection pass of a friend’s backyard runway, which he contends is standard procedure for pilots conducting backcountry landings.
Agency officials, however, contend that Palmer was flying at a hazardous altitude that endangered life or property and was less than 100 feet off the ground when he was within 50 feet of a stable, shed, and propane tank. He was also in close proximity to homes, as well as adults and children, the agency said.
Inspection Pass Incident
“I guess I’ll just come out and say it. The FAA has suspended my license for 60 days,” Palmer said in the online video, which by Monday had racked up more than 369,000 views.
Palmer said the incident at the center of FAA’s enforcement action occurred Nov. 24, 2019, as he made an inspection pass of a friend’s property in a sparsely populated area as he was flying home in the Kitfox.
The airstrip he was inspecting, according to Palmer, was one his friend put in his backyard for radio-controlled aircraft.
“The neighborhood is sparsely populated with a lot of room between properties. The strip is on a 10-acre parcel carved out in sage brush,” Palmer told FLYING.
Palmer, an experienced backcountry pilot who was flying a STOL Kitfox V, said he performed a series of low-pass inspections, per recommendations in the FAA publication Off Airport Ops.
The FAA publication advises pilots to make multiple inspection passes over unfamiliar unimproved runways to check for hazards such as “cuts in gravel, rocks, dips, bumps, etc.” The ops manual goes on to state: “It is important to be at an angle to the runway, not above it. Certain light conditions can make a bad site seem good. Check and double check any area not used before.” The manual continues: “Each pass should result in you becoming more comfortable with your chosen landing area. If you are becoming less comfortable, abandon the site and seek a more suitable landing area.”
“I went ahead and made an inspection pass and what would have been a short final for that inspection pass. I realized that I wasn’t really able to identify the touchdown point for that landing spot,” Palmer said in his video. “That, as well as the intended center line, or the direction that the runway would have ran, or where the end of it was. It was just a lot harder to see from the air, so I opted to move on.”
Palmer later told FLYING that when he reached the friend’s property, he noted that the friend had moved some dirt around, creating trails and a motocross track. After a few passes, Palmer decided to abort the landing. “Because of recent dirt work, I didn’t have a good visual of where I would touch down and decided not to land there,” he explained.
Palmer described the area as wide open in the sagebrush. The property, however, did not have a windsock or airport lighting.
A few days later, Palmer said he got a call from an inspector from the Reno Flight Standards District Office requesting a meeting. The incident had been recorded on a doorbell security camera from a nearby property, and Palmer said the inspector told him he was going to recommend that he temporarily lose his certificate for 210 days.
Regulation Violation Allegations
Five months later, in April 2020, the FAA notified Palmer through Notice of Proposed Certificate Action that the agency proposed suspending his private pilot certificate for 210 days due to alleged violation of three FARs:
- FAR 91.119(a), which states: Except when necessary for takeoff or landing, no person may operate an aircraft below the following altitudes: Anywhere. An altitude allowing, if a power unit fails, an emergency landing without undue hazard to persons or property on the surface.
- FAR 91.119(c), which states: Except when necessary for takeoff or landing, no person may operate an aircraft below the following altitudes: 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, and
- FAR 91.13(a), which states: No person may operate an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.
After an information conference, the recommendation was knocked down to 120 days, the agency said in an amended order of suspension dated September 20, 2021, which was obtained by FLYING through a Freedom of Information Act request.
“As a result of the foregoing, the Administrator has determined that safety in air commerce or air transportation and the public interest require the suspension of your Private Pilot Certificate No. 3786226,” the document stated.
By late April 2022, however, the suspension had been reduced even further.
“A [National Transportation Safety Board] NTSB Administrative Law Judge affirmed the alleged violations but reduced the suspension to 60 days,” an FAA spokesperson told FLYING Friday. “Both parties appealed that decision. The suspension is held in abeyance until the appeals process is complete.”
Palmer argues that he did not violate FAR 91.119 since the low passes were made in preparation for landing. As for the allegation that he operated his aircraft recklessly, Palmer replied, “FAR 91.13 careless and reckless is the FAA rubber rule, they throw that at anything,” he said.
“The video is shot from a camera that is pointed at the sky because that neighbor said my friend was sending his drones over to spy on him. My friend doesn’t have any drones,” said Palmer.
“I told the FAA aviation safety inspector that I had been invited to land there. He didn’t care. He told me he was going to forward the issue to the FAA legal team.”
“It’s not like a civil matter where you are tried by a jury of your peers,” Palmer said.
“Basically, they told me I was guilty until proven innocent,” he said.
“The judge stated since I didn’t land and since there was no runway marking windsock he suspended my license for 60 days,” Palmer said.
Palmer said that had he landed, the 91.119 violation would not have applied, and he is concerned that the judge’s ruling, if allowed to stand, will put external pressure on pilots to make potentially risky landings rather than being cited for violating the regulation.
In response to 91.13—the regulation that states no person may operate an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another—Palmer contends that “careless” and “reckless” are often in the eye of the beholder.
He added that it is confusing, especially for STOL operations, because the FAA has a guide for off-airport landings.
“This ruling—if allowed to stand—will make off-airport landings illegal,” Palmer said.
While it remains to be seen what the final outcome of Palmer’s case will be, the enforcement case is already prompting discussion.
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) weighed in over the weekend on its Twitter account:
AOPA is concerned about the case involving Trent Palmer, the FAA’s handling of it, and potential future implications for safety and backcountry flying. We remain fully supportive of the rights of pilots to land on appropriate off-airport locations, or to execute a go-around at… pic.twitter.com/jHlUFHC0kb— AOPA (@AOPA) April 30, 2022
The low-flying, or buzzing, violation codified in 91.119 “is long-standing and well-established,” said David St. George, executive director of the Society of Aviation and Flight Educators (SAFE) on the organization’s blog, on the incident involving Palmer.
“You will probably never be violated if you are operating at a charted airport [in a normal manner],” he said. “But if you are not near a charted airport in the backcountry, you could easily be sanctioned if what you are doing looks like a ‘buzz job’ (and it will stick).”
Many pilots think of 91.119 as a “get-out-of-jail-free card,” thinking they can say the incident occurred during the takeoff or landing phase of flight, St. George said.
“This reg does not work like that,” he said. “One important pro tip for talking with the FAA during an inquiry: Don’t,” St. George said. “Get a lawyer right away if it is serious.”