Finding a Legal Landing Zone

It’s not as easy as it seems sometimes.

At Lake Pateros
My R44, parked on the side lawn at the Lake Pateros Inn in Washington State. Sadly, heat from my engine browned the grass.

One of the benefits of operating a helicopter is that you can land it almost anywhere. One of the drawbacks of this, however, is that not all landing zones are legal.

The other day, I was asked by a client to find a pickup location for him that was closer to where he was staying than Scottsdale Airport. He suggested two possibilities that I knew I couldn’t use:

  • A private helipad at the resort where he’s staying. That helipad is owned by another helicopter operator who gets three times what I do per hour of flight time. They do not allow others to use their helipad.
  • A private, residential airport near the resort where he’s staying. They have a strict “no helicopter” policy.

I went through the motions and called the managers of both facilities. I was told what I expected to be told: that I could not use them.

What Do the FARs Say?

Around this time, I commented on Twitter that I was conducting a search. Another pilot, who flies airplanes, wanted to know how I was searching and where legal landing zones were covered in the FARs (Federal Aviation Regulations).

The truth is, they’re not. There’s no FAR that clearly states where you’re allowed to land a helicopter.

Instead, the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) offers some clear guidance on where you’re not allowed to land any aircraft. 7-4-6 Flights Over Charted U.S. Wildlife Refuges, Parks, and Forest Service Areas states, in part:

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.

I assume this is in the FARs somewhere — the AIM is generally a plain English translation of most FARs, better organized and easier to read — but I can’t track it down.

So Where Can You Land?

A Heli Outing
This heli-outing brought three helicopters, including my old R22, out in the desert near the Swansea Townsite.

When I first started flying helicopters, knowing where you were allowed to land in a non-emergency situation was a big deal. Everyone dreams of landing on their best friend’s driveway or backyard. Was it legal? How about showing up at your kid’s soccer game? Dropping off a friend at work in an office park? Stopping in at Krispy Creme for a donut and coffee? Landing along the lakeshore for a quick afternoon swim?

Is any of this legal?

My answer: it depends.

Before you read any farther, understand that I am not a lawyer. I cannot advise you on these matters. If you get in trouble for landing somewhere and use what you read here as a legal defense, you are an idiot and deserve to lose your license. I’m just sharing what I’ve learned through experience. I don’t know all the answers and certainly cannot advise you in your specific situations.

Landing in the Middle of Nowhere

R22 in Riverbed
A blast from the past: My old R22 sitting in a wash south of Alamo Lake about a day after it flowed. Hard sand makes a good landing surface.

Keep in mind that I live on the edge of nowhere. Wickenburg is on the northwest end of Maricopa County. There’s not much other than empty desert in most directions. Go southeast and you’ll get to the Phoenix metro area within 30 minutes, but go in almost any other direction and you’ll be driving (or flying) for a while before you get anywhere else.

That said, friends and I have landed our helicopters at many remote patches of desert, both privately owned and owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

I discovered through telephone calls, an exchange of mail, and a $270 fine that I’m allowed to land on BLM land that’s not Wilderness area as long as I don’t do it with paying passengers on board. Commercial flights must have permits for landing on BLM land. And trust me: BLM will drag its collective butt in getting you a permit once you apply for one. It took 18 months for me to get permission to land at the Swansea Townsite and costs $90/year to maintain that permit. (I’ve landed there once with paying passengers in the past three years; do you think I should renew?)

But land on private land just footsteps away from government-owned land and you’re okay — as long as other factors don’t come into play.

Permissions and Local Ordinances

At the Big Sandy Shoot
Parked at the semi-annual Big Sandy Shoot. The event is held on a mile-square parcel of privately-owned land northwest of Phoenix.

What are the other factors?

Well, you need to have permission of the property owner. After all, it is his property. It doesn’t have to be written permission, but if you don’t have permission, you could be prosecuted for trespassing.

You also need to be aware of any local ordinances against landing. Wickenburg has one of these ordinances, although they only seem interested in enforcing it when it’s convenient to them. (This is the case with many of Wickenburg’s rules, especially those regarding zoning.) Scottsdale also has an ordinance.

Moab, UT didn’t have an ordinance until after I landed at a friend’s 2-1/2 acre property there. The cops rolled by and I thought I’d get in trouble, but they just wanted to see the helicopter. A week later, the ordinance came out and was on the front page of the local newspaper. Oh, well.

There are two ways to find out if a locality has an ordinance against helicopters landing within town limits:

  • Land there and see if you get in trouble. I don’t recommend this approach, but it can be effective, especially in remote areas where you might not even be seen by anyone on the ground.
  • Call ahead and ask. In most cases, they won’t know. You can make a lot of calls and get nowhere. Then you can try the above approach and see where it gets you. Hopefully, not in jail.
Helicopter at HouseParked in the desert north of Phoenix. Photo by Jon Davison.

Of course, this refers to towns and cities. Within those are subdivisions that may be controlled by written rules (such as that private airport that won’t allow helicopters). And everything is inside a county, which may have its own rules.

Sounds like a pain in the butt? It is. But if you don’t do your homework before you land off-airport, you’re liable to get in deep trouble with the local authorities and FAA. You could have your pilot certificate suspended or even revoked. I don’t know about you, but I have enough time and money invested in my helicopter pilot certificate, aircraft, and business to act wisely. If I can’t find a legal landing zone where I think I need one, I won’t land there.

Please Read This

Tristan's R44
Before buying my own R44 in 2005, I leased a friend’s. This shot was taken in Congress, AZ, where I attempted to sell helicopter rides a few times.

If you’re landing off-airport, whether you have permission to land at an official helicopter landing zone or you’re just taking a risk landing where you might or might not be allowed to, please, for the sake of all of the helicopter pilots out there, keep these things in mind:

  • Only land where its safe. This applies to the terrain of the landing zone itself, as well as your approach and departure routes. Wouldn’t you be embarrassed if you had a dynamic rollover in your buddy’s backyard?
  • Land at the edge of activity — or farther away, if possible. I used to do rides at the Mohave County Fair. My landing zone was at the far end of the event, beyond the carnival rides. There were many people at the event who didn’t even know there was a helicopter around. I’ve also landed at remote restaurants far enough away that no one even heard me approach.
  • Only land where you can secure the landing zone while the helicopter is running. I’ll land places where there may be people on the ground if I have a second person on board with me to get out and keep the landing zone clear of curious bystanders. But if I’m alone, I wouldn’t even think of landing where someone might approach the helicopter while it’s running. Do you really think it would be a good idea to land at your kid’s soccer game? What if a bunch of those kids ran toward you from behind and ducked under the tailcone? Do I have to paint a bloody picture for you?
  • Do not overfly people, vehicles, animals, or buildings at low-level. This is for courtesy and safety. Engine failure on approach or departure means a possibly messy crash into whatever’s below you. Crashing into an empty parking lot is very different from crashing into a crowded soccer field or county fair arcade. (By the same token, anyone who buys a home within a mile of the approach/departure end of any airport runway should have his/her head examined.)
  • Be courteous to people on the ground. Don’t spend more time than necessary circling the landing zone at low level. Once you know your approach and departure routes, get it on the ground. Don’t give bystanders a reason to complain. That’s why localities make these ordinances. Because some jackass pilot annoyed just the right number of people to get the ordinance voted in.
  • Do not draw attention to yourself. Sure, it’s cool to land off-airport and yeah, everyone will be jealous. But aren’t you above all that? If you can land and depart in such a way that no one even knows how you arrived, that’s even cooler.
  • Do not walk away from the aircraft with the engine running and blades spinning. I can’t believe I have to include this no-brainer on a list, but here it is, for the folks who have no brain and actually leave a running helicopter unattended.
  • If asked to leave, do so quickly and without argument. Be apologetic. Be nice. Don’t be an asshole.

The rest of us are depending on you to act wisely so the FAA doesn’t add a rule that prevents us from landing off airport.

My Advice

Mansion Landing
Parked at the house of some friends just outside Wickenburg town limits. They cleared a small helipad up there for me to use. Photo by Jon Davison.

My advice is that you don’t land anywhere where safety or legality may be an issue. Do your homework and get the information you need to establish whether your landing zone is legal.

Or simply land at the nearest airport. That’s what I’ll be doing for my upcoming charter flight.

22 thoughts on “Finding a Legal Landing Zone

  1. Maria, that was both accurate and well written,good job. I fly in a lot of foreign countries and the “rules” for off airport landings are sometimes difficult to define.We sometimes use the limited protection of being part of a particular countries emergency relief efforts for firefighting.That won’t always protect you if something goes wrong. In Italy we are almost always covered by Protection Civile but in Greece when you chose to land off airport you are on your own. If a private citizen or local agency complains you had better be prepared to concoct an “emergency story”. For that reason and others I try hard not to make a landing at an unapproved heliport or airport in Greece.

    I miss the days of landing in back of the Motel and now even private property landings at B&B’s are subject to complaint and violation. Ahh, the good old days.My rule of thumb now is,when in doubt don’t do it.

    Keith Gill´s last blog post: Frosty Reception

    • Thanks very much for the kind words.

      As far as “emergency stories,” isn’t that what chip lights are really for?

      Seriously, though, I agree with your final comment: “when in doubt, don’t do it.” That’s definitely my rule of thumb, too. But I’m lucky out here in the desert. There are so many places — including more than a few remote restaurants and off-the-beaten-path motels — where I can land without serious doubts. Still, I’d much rather land with permission than without it.

  2. Good information. The superb shots of your heli “out there” make it even better. Thank you for putting this together.

  3. Hey Maria, nice write up. Have you ever landed at grapevine by roosevelt lake? Its listed as abandoned on the sectional as of recently. What do you think about landing there?

    • Bryan: Sorry, I’m not familiar with Grapevine. I don’t get out to Roosevelt Lake very often. Didn’t even know there was an airport (?) out there. If it’s in the National Forest (Tonto, I believe), landing there would be a big no-no if it was closed to the public. Unless you have a chip light, of course. ;-)

  4. Maria,

    Thanks for the advice. We are all prudent pilots until that one personal fantasy begins to tempt us… and as PICs we can’t depend on others to tell us when we’ve gone off our rockers.

    I’ve decided to cancel my plans to land at a friend’s riverside cabin. As cool as it would be, it isn’t worth risking any of the hundred little things that could go wrong (blowing debris, ordnance violations, angry neighbors, CFIT… the list goes on.) If nothing else, your article makes me feel better about listening to that little voice in my head.


    • I’ve made a lot of off-airport landings, but I always avoid the ones where I’m noticed by more than a very small handful of people. And I very seldom land anywhere that requires overflying someone else’s home or business by less than 200-300 feet. It’s just not worth the potential headache.

      I’m glad my post helped you better hear that little voice. That silly little voice is usually right.

      Fly safe!

  5. Just make sure you land/take off with the tail towards the people so they can’t see your N numbers. lol
    Wichita, Ks.

    • I sure hope you’re kidding.

      NEVER park a helicopter with the tail towards spectators. The danger of one of them walking into the tail rotor is just too great.

    • No Maria I should have said depart or approach. I’m a fellow rotorhead and was talking about away from people. Was using it in the same vein as ” chip light emergency”.

  6. I love video games and being in the military (landings most anywhere). Always dreamt of being a “Charter Rotter-Head” as some of you. This is the best article I’ve read on this vital aspect of the business, hobbie or sport I’ve ever read.

    Idk thank each one of you for all your thoughts, concerns and especially all your pictures.

    Thank you and well done :-))

    Living in kci where theirs numerous public executive airports nearby (hint, hint).

    Stay Safe & FLY Safe

  7. I would like to find the most direct route to seek permission to land at the Maraposa Restaurant in Sedona Az. I have a friend from school years that Founded the restaurant and I have visited with her and shared dinner. There is a great grass spot that she said we could land on that may be 40 to f50 yards from back inclosed patio. We would land at low patron time. I have spoken to the helocopter pilot at the near by airport that provides tours in the Sedona area and he didn’t know what it would take to get permission.

    • If the pilot says he doesn’t know, he’s either being lazy or doesn’t want to do it. All it takes is asking permission from the owner and seeing whether there’s a local ordinance prohibiting it. In Sedona, I suspect there would be. It isn’t exactly a helicopter friendly place. Why don’t you go to the local town hall and ask? That’s a good way to start. Good luck!

    • I don’t know if the rules are different in Alaska. I’ve never flown there. But I doubt they are. And maybe you are referring to airplane pilots? In most cases, airplane pilots need runways and if there is a runway in a wilderness area I don’t see any reason why either an airplane pilot or helicopter probably wouldn’t be able to land at it.