The Rules about Flying over Wilderness Areas

My answer to a reader’s question.

ChartA week or two ago, I got an email message from a reader who had read my November 2011 post, “A Few Aerial Views from Today’s Flight.” That post shows off a bunch of photos captured by my helicopter’s “nose cam,” a GoPro Hero2 camera I sometimes use in flight. The photos include views of the Verde and Salt Rivers north and east of Phoenix, including some of the lakes along the rivers. My reader noticed, after consulting some aeronautical charts, that much of the area I’d flown over was designated as wilderness area.

This reader, who asked to remain anonymous and not be quoted verbatim, was wondering about “bending” rules. Although he mentioned the June 2012 wire strike helicopter crash in the Verde River area, he wasn’t interested in the safety aspects of maintaining a high enough altitude to clear obstacles. He was interested in my interpretation of the rule about flying at least 2,000 feet above wilderness areas.

The “Rule”

Before I interpret the rule, it’s a good idea to know exactly what the rule is and where it can be found.

It’s interesting to note that a search for “wilderness” and “2,000 feet” in the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) does not provide any guidance related to operations over charted wilderness areas. The FARs are the rules pilots are required to comply with.

A search of the Aeronautics Information Manual (AIM) for “wilderness” results in “Part 7-4-6: Flights Over Charted U.S. Wildlife Refuges, Parks, and Forest Service Areas.” Paragraph b pertains to this topic:

b. Pilots are requested to maintain a minimum altitude of 2,000 feet above the surface of the following: National Parks, Monuments, Seashores, Lakeshores, Recreation Areas and Scenic Riverways administered by the National Park Service, National Wildlife Refuges, Big Game Refuges, Game Ranges and Wildlife Ranges administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Wilderness and Primitive areas administered by the U.S. Forest Service.

A note adds this:

FAA Advisory Circular AC 91-36, Visual Flight Rules (VFR) Flight Over Noise-Sensitive Areas, defines the surface of a national park area (including parks, forests, primitive areas, wilderness areas, recreational areas, national seashores, national monuments, national lakeshores, and national wildlife refuge and range areas) as: the highest terrain within 2,000 feet laterally of the route of flight, or the upper-most rim of a canyon or valley.

First Glance Interpretation

At first glance, the “rule” seems pretty straightforward: you’re supposed to fly at least 2,000 feet above the ground in any charted wilderness area, etc.

User's Guide ImageCharts, by the way, make it very easy to identify these areas. They’re normally surrounded by a blue line that has dots on the inside of the area. This entry from the Aeronautical Chart User’s Guide shows what to look for. And this chart excerpt from the Phoenix terminal area chart (TAC) illustrates how two areas look on an actual chart: The Hells Canyon Wilderness area (left) and Lake Pleasant Bald Eagle Breeding Area (right):

Wilderness Examples

The Advisory Circular note goes a bit further to explain that the lowest point in the wilderness area that you should consider when setting your altitude is the highest point 2,000 feet from your aircraft in any direction. So if you’re flying over a 1,000 foot deep canyon and the canyon is only 1,500 feet wide, you should be 2,000 feet above the canyon walls — not 2,000 feet over the bottom of the canyon.

It’s important to note that a requirement like this is extremely difficult for helicopter pilots to deal with, primarily because helicopters normally operate 500 to 1,000 feet above the ground. We seldom fly 2,000 feet above anything — that’s nosebleed territory for us. That’s also where small planes might be operating — and we’re trained to stay away from them. So when you ask a helicopter pilot to fly 2,000 feet above the ground, we’re not going to like it.

But Is It A Rule?

But the real question should be, is this really a rule? Something that must be followed? Something that could get you in trouble with the FAA if you ignore it?

I can offer two arguments for why pilots are not required to fly 2,000 feet above charted wilderness areas:

  • The “rule” is not included in the FARs, which are the regulations governing flight in the U.S. Instead, it’s described in the AIM, which is informational in nature.
  • The language of the “rule” says that “Pilots are requested to maintain a minimum altitude of 2,000 feet above the surface…” Surely you can’t confuse a “request” with a “requirement.”

Before I go any further, I want to point out paragraph c of the same AIM part (7-4-6):

Federal statues prohibit certain types of flight activity and/or provide altitude restrictions over designated U.S. Wildlife Refuges, Parks, and Forest Service Areas. These designated areas, for example: Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Areas, Minnesota; Haleakala National Park, Hawaii; Yosemite National Park, California; and Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, are charted on Sectional Charts.

Note the use of the word “prohibit” in this paragraph. With a little bit of effort, you can find the rules for these areas in the FARs or Special Federal Aviation Regulations (SFARs). For example, FAR 93 Subpart U and SFAR 50-2 govern special regulations over Grand Canyon National Park. In the case of Yosemite the rule is printed right on the chart:

Yosemite on Chart

In case you can’t read it:

Public Law 100-91 prohibits flight of VFR helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft below 2000 feet above the surface of Yosemite National Park. “Surface” refers to the highest terrain within the park within 2000 feet laterally of the route of flight or within the uppermost rim of the Yosemite Valley.

Pretty clear, no?

My point is, don’t get the idea that a pilot can ignore charted wilderness areas. That simply isn’t true. You need to know whether an area has its own special flight regulations before even considering “breaking” the 2,000-foot “rule.”

What’s Right?

Now you know my interpretation. But I didn’t get this on my own. It was pointed out to me by my primary flight instructor years ago. Pilots who take the time to look up and read the “rules” can make their own conclusions.

The reader who queried me about this obviously realized from the photos I shared on my blog post that I must have been flying lower than 2,000 feet above the ground in a charted wilderness area. Denying I did so when there’s photographic evidence to the contrary would be dishonest, insulting to my readers, and a waste of time.

But is it right to fly low over these areas? Because it’s not a regulation in most wilderness areas, it becomes an ethical decision on the part of the pilot.

First, consider why charted wilderness areas exist. The government is protecting these areas, for whatever reason. Usually, it’s because they don’t want aircraft noise to interfere with wildlife — especially wildlife breeding and habitat maintenance. Sometimes its because they want “natural” areas to be kept quiet for visitors trying to enjoy the beauty of nature in peace.

How do you feel about preserving quiet in these areas? Is it important to you? If you were on the ground, how would you feel if a helicopter or plane buzzed by at 500 or 1,000 feet? Would it bother you? How do you think it affects the people on the ground? People camping, fishing, hiking, meditating?

As the person who contacted me pointed out, when he flew in the area, he didn’t see a person for miles. So who would he be bothering?

The one thing I can say with certainty is this: If pilots typically “busted a wilderness area” by flying low through it and enough people on the ground noticed and complained about it, it’s far more likely that the government will respond by establishing a real rule to prevent it. Yes, at one time people were allowed to fly low-level through the Grand Canyon and Yosemite valley. But when enough complaints came in, regulations were written to make such activity illegal.

Would you want to see that happen with all the wilderness areas on the charts?

I know I wouldn’t.

18 thoughts on “The Rules about Flying over Wilderness Areas

  1. 2000ft above Yosemite is going to put you in the Oxygen required zone and close to the bottom of Class A… not going to be there any time soon :-)

  2. This might be slightly off topic, but I know you like to look at NTSB reports and sometimes are left wanting for more information than what is included in the preliminary/factual findings. I found out recently through a safety meeting that the NTSB is making accident dockets available on their website once the investigation is completed. These dockets generally have the accident form that was submitted to the FAA, W&B info, pilot/passenger/witness statements and photos. Unfortunately, the only dockets online are from June 1, 2009 and newer.

    To access the dockets, just go to and then click the Accident Dockets button on the second menu bar below their recent news banner. Click Search, then put in the NTSB accident ID, and click the Find button. (Clicking Search again just reloads the Search page, not the best layout.) If you’re lucky, it will popup with the docket. If the docket doesn’t come up, they do have an online form to request it with.

  3. If you look at a sectional chart near S16 (Copalis Beach airport on the Pacific Coast of Washington) you’ll see that NOAA has put some legal teeth into the 2,000′ limit. I wouldn’t be surprised to see areas like this start to multiply in the future. The worrisome part about this rule for pilots is that if accused, you’re presumed guilty (or that’s the commonly held belief). It’s not clear that you could prove yourself not-guilty or even if anyone would listen. It’ll be interesting to follow the enforcement of these areas.

    • An interesting part of that, is that it comes from NOAA and not the FAA. From the FAQ ( on their website:

      “5) How can NOAA impose overflight prohibitions when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is the only agency that can establish flight rules?

      Answer: NOAA recognizes the FAA’s authority to regulate airspace and has worked closely with the FAA to craft regulations that are explicitly linked to NOAA’s statutory authority for natural resource protection. NOAA has established a minimum altitude disturbance threshold for federally protected marine mammal and seabird communities within discrete areas of the MBNMS and GFNMS. Flying motorized aircraft below the 1000-foot minimum altitude threshold in certain coastal areas of the sanctuary violates a federal wildlife disturbance prohibition – not an FAA airspace restriction. The FAA, in a 2012 letter to the Aircraft Operators and Pilots Association (AOPA), stated that it does not view NOAA’s current sanctuary overflight prohibitions as airspace regulations nor as an infringement on the FAA’s stated authority to regulate airspace.”

      So in fact, it is not the FAA making the restriction, but NOAA in the interest of wildlife protection.

    • Wow. Thanks tons for this info. Very interesting!

      I find it disturbing, however, that non-FAA agencies can regulate airspace — even if the FAA claims that it’s not technically an “airspace regulation.” (How can they see it otherwise? After all, it does prohibit a certain aviation operation.) This makes me wonder how many other organizations will begin creating rules regarding airspace and what reasons they’ll use to make them stick.

      This shows us that none of this is black and white. It’s vital for a pilot to include a careful inspection of the charts and related airspace rules as part of preflight planning.

      Thanks again for this information.

    • You need to keep in mind that most politicians in the federal government don’t care about the constraints placed on them by the Constitution. Thousands and thousands and thousands of “laws” we live under in this country weren’t created by Congress, as the Constitution stipulates should be the case, but by unelected bureaucrats. This is just another case of government run amok.

  4. Can pilots just do the right thing and stay away from wilderness and roadless areas instead of waiting for hard and fast rules?

    • Non-pilots don’t understand that there’s a lot of wide open space out there with no roads or anything else. I remember flying my R22 a full 85 miles on the Arizona Strip years ago without crossing a single road. That’s a whole hour of nothing.

  5. After 9/11, so many more rules, where pilots were banned, over any dams like at reservoirs, where people always wanted to see from the air, even a gathering of people at a high school football game, etc. And if someone calls in about a low flying plane, it can one persons word against 2 on the ground. And it does seem, guilty till proven innocent. Well that was when I gave up recreational flying(9/11) Freedoms lost.

  6. Note that rifles and handguns are legal in wilderness areas and 500 feet AGL is within the range of most rifles and some handguns. Someone may want to send an instant complaint about noise rather than complaining to government. I think about that often when flying low (I don’t fly lower than the ‘suggested altitude’ over wilderness areas or wildlife refuges).

    • Guns might be legal, but shooting at aircraft isn’t. I fly where I need to fly but I try hard not to be a nuisance or a danger to wildlife.

  7. My tax dollars pay for these areas and if ATV’s and RV’s and boats are allowed. Then you can bet your ass I will fly there. I do research the breeding times of the birds and animals and do not fly over people. But, there is no FAA “Rule” prohibiting flights over wilderness areas. They only “Request” that you don’t. There are a couple exceptions to this by NOAA and most of those places are not worth the flight anyway. I’m tired of having to be a “nice” pilot while others try to limit my fun for their fun.

    • Actually, ATVs and other motorized vehicles are normally not allowed in wilderness areas. But I do agree with your read of the “rules” regarding flight over wilderness areas. They are not rules, they are requests.

What do you think?