Brian Lecomber aerobatic pilot and writer
Special feature

First rule of a buzz job? DO. NOT. DO. IT…

A beat-up. A buzz job. Call it what you will – a ‘run-in and break’ sounds a tad more ‘acceptable’. Demonstrating your virility is, in short, dangerous. Even Brian says Don’t Do It. Then again – if you MUST, at least do it right…

Back in 2013 Brian Lecomber wrote his last column for FLYER. He passed away in September 2015, leaving the world poorer for his absence, but richer for the memories and writing he left behind. Brian spent many years on the circuit as a very accomplished member of the Rothmans aerobatic team, and of his own Firebird Aerobatic team.

In addition to his novels, Brian wrote about motoring and, of course, aviation. We’re reformatting his previous FLYER columns, this appeared in FLYER in October 2013.


This article is gonna be kind of hard to explain. Especially if it’s the Civil Aviation Authority Legal Branch doing the asking. For I have to start by saying, “Heavenly Father (or CAA Legal) I have sinned. Many times. And this is how you should go about sinning…”

I’m talking about a beat-up. A buzz job.

Your girlfriend’s house is down there. You can see her in the garden, waving. The serious gut desire is to dive down and indulge in the masculine inclination to beat your chest and roar, thus proving yourself to be the Alpha Gorilla.   

Well, obviously, DON’T DO IT!

Beat-ups, buzz jobs, are seriously dangerous. You won’t need me to tell you that over the years many, many pilots have rendered themselves dysfunctional in the process of demonstrating their virility. Flying into the ground or (especially) water during a low pass… flying into wires ditto… even more often stalling and spinning out of the subsequent pull-up – you name it, pilots have done it.

Many times. In everything from a B-52 to an Airbus and on downwards.

But you still want to be the Alpha Godzilla.

Well, to repeat, DON’T DO IT!

The CAA takes an extremely dim view of buzz jobs. Like Queen Victoria, they can become seriously po-faced and We Are Not Amused. You won’t see the po-faces at first – you’re more likely to be visited by one or two very polite gentlemen who drink up your coffee and seem apologetic for bothering you. Then – WHAP – big summonses for aviation offences various. These guys seriously do not mess about. Try the old feeble ‘practice forced-landing’ story and see how far that gets you. If they’ve got credible witnesses then your full-power ‘practice forced-landing’ scenario most surely ain’t gonna wash. Guess how I know.

Well, oddly enough, I don’t know. Not from first-hand experience. Totally unlikely as it may sound, I have never been ‘done’ for a buzz job. Which just goes to prove that Lady Luck smiles upon some sinners with perfectly undeserved charity.

The first time I did it I most certainly deserved to get my collar felt. Big time. This was way, way back when I had the strong opinions of youth but had to scrub twice behind the ears each morning to get rid of some of the green. One of these youthful opinions was that I disapproved of fox-hunting. (This disgust has long, long been reversed, and this was decades before it became a perfectly ludicrous political football. But ‘twas how it was for me at the time.)

So here I am, all these years ago, swanning around over Buckinghamshire in a Tiger Moth practising my meagre repertoire of aerobatics. And lo – what do I suddenly see beneath me? A hunt, no less! Seemingly in full cry – well, certainly galloping – across a field gently rising up to the Chiltern escarpment.

Ho! Time the poor old fox got a bit of a helping hand. Most foxes don’t have a call on Air Power…

I won’t recall the excruciating detail. Suffice it to say that the Tiger and I, having collected what little speed the Tiger was capable of, suddenly popped up from under the ridge and proceeded head-on at the hunt at about 30ft. I have a confused recollection of horses and red coats scattering like ninepins – and then I was away, sweating in every pore and heels drumming on the footwells.

What have I done? What made me DO that?

And above all, I have to confess, Am I going to get nicked for it?

Well, I didn’t get nicked. Possibly because the one thing I did right that day was make ONE pass and then get the hell out of Dodge. Go back for a second bite and somebody – probably many bodies – are sure as hell going to get your registration. And they ain’t gonna be no friendly plane-spotters, neither…

So – I was lucky. Extremely lucky – my only penalty being the wear and tear on muscles and nerves caused by jumping three feet in the air every time the phone rang for the next month.

I never repeated that escapade. And am thoroughly ashamed of it. But I have also been lucky ever since. Over 35 years I’ve flown thousands of buzz jobs – most, but not all, over aerodromes.

Not – repeat NOT – something I’d advise anybody to do.

My excuse is that I was always flying flamboyant and highly aerobatic display aircraft whose whole raison d’etre was to draw attention. And I always got ATC clearance first. And I always (well, nearly always) did it over the runway – none of this silly pointing-at-the-Tower stuff.

And I never used the words ‘buzz job’ but would request ‘run-in and break’ – exactly the same thing of course, but it sounds a bit more up-market. Display aircraft and military aircraft do run-and-breaks into the circuit all the time; the run-in being a fast pass down the runway in the direction of landing, and the break a climbing, 180° turning pull-up to the downwind leg. My versions tended to differ a bit inasmuch as I’d do the run-in at 30ft and then break into the up-vertical, perform (say) a triple outside vertical flick and join downwind off the top of that.

So what was wrong with that? I had a CAA Display Authorisation (DA) for Unlimited aerobatics down to a base height of 30ft, and ATC clearance to boot. So what’s for anybody to get stuffy about? The CAA had seen me, and umpteen other display pilots, doing run-and-breaks since they were licking lollipops in shorts (the future CAA men in shorts, not the lollipops). So no legal problem there, right?

Well, there may be – or there may not be. The low DA clearance is not actually activated unless there is also a Display Exemption and Permission in force for that place and that time.

In the absence of that, the law you’re up against here is one every pilot knows – ‘Thou shalt not fly closer than 500ft to any person, vehicle, vessel or structure unless you are taking off or landing, lest the CAA swat a lawbook very firmly on thy potato.’

This 500ft is not of course a height limitation. It is a miss-distance. Think of yourself and your flying machine as being the epicentre of a huge invisible bubble with a diameter of 1,000 feet and therefore a radius of 500 feet. If in the course of your low pass any part of the sphere touches a person, vehicle or structure you can be gonged, brought before the Beak and sent in shackles to the Bastille for the rest of your natural on bread and water and McDonald’s roadkill burgers if you can afford to send out for them.

How NOT to do a buzz job – with speed and flaps down… not that this pilot would be daft enough to do it in the first place (Photo: Ed Hicks)

But… 500ft is actually not a very long way. It is 167 yards. Or 152 metres. And most runways – not all, but most – are more than 152 metres away from any structures such as hangars, towers, brothels, etc.

All fine and dandy – but what about the runway itself? And the runway lights? And the VASIs? The runway is almost certainly the biggest single structure on the entire aerodrome…

Well, the truth is that nobody wants to get silly about this. Yes, the runway is a structure – but the CAA choose to regard ‘structures’ as buildings which do, might or could contain homo sapiens (although I’ve never actually seen this defined anywhere).

Which runways generally do not, unless Al Capone or the Kray brothers had a hand in the concrete-pouring, in which case the homo sapiens will hardly be in a condition to complain anyway. However, position a fire-truck or a gang-mower or a taxying aircraft within 500ft of the runway, and you’re back to square one…

But again, nobody wants to be silly about this.

However – buzzing the girlfriend’s house is a different matter. Very, very different. Here, unless your heart’s desire lives in a solitary joint in the middle of nowhere, it is much more difficult to avoid busting the 500ft rule (even assuming you’re not actually pea-brained enough to also infringe the 1,500ft rule – low flying over built-up areas – as well and at the same time). And even if you don’t bust the 500ft, you’re going to be hard-pressed to prove it if two or three unkindly witnesses say you did.

So, once again – DON’T DO IT.

But – you’re still going to, aren’t you?

Even when you’re not flying an aerobatic aeroplane and have no aerobatic experience anyway. In spite of all this…

You’re still determined to do it. You still wanna be the Alpha Gorilla. Even if it only proves you have the brain of a gorilla, and possibly the scent of same. On a good day.

Well, OK. If you must do it then let’s at least do it right.

LOOK at the site and plan where your run is going to go. Do NOT ad-lib it. Plan it.

DO NOT fly at the target – fly alongside it.

SET your altimeter to the site elevation (and if you don’t know it, what are you doing there?).

GAIN SPEED: a low, slow pass is a recipe for disaster.

DIVE in relatively steeply – it gains speed and gives you a better view forwards.

DO NOT look sideways at the target (the girlfriend, brothel, etc), but concentrate on where you’re going.

THE PULL-UP after the pass is actually the most dangerous thing about it. If this is not bloody obvious then most certainly DO NOT DO IT. A straight pull-up is dangerous because the chances are you won’t get the rudder co-ordination right and you may well cause the engine to quit during the push-over at the top. So then you have a dead engine and a nose-up aeroplane with asymmetric rudder and you wonder (briefly) why it stalls and spins…

INSTEAD, do a gentle climbing turn at the end of the run – it’s easier to lower the nose during the turn without resort to violence. It’s called a Chandelle – and if you don’t know what a Chandelle is, then please, please, don’t even think about a buzz job. Buy her a bunch of flowers instead. Before she has to buy you one to put on the casket of your cremated remains.

In fact, our low-flying laws might be about to change. On 4 Dec 2014 the UK is supposed to adopt the Standardised European Rules of the Air (SERA), within which is stated, among myriad other edicts, that instead of a 500ft miss-distance there shall be a 500ft height limitation over both land and water. This proposal (SERA 5005, if you know how to look these things up) has not gone over big with any UK aviation organisation (including the CAA, who are highly leery but feel unable to comment officially at this time), and would effectively rule out civilian low flying in this country, period, unless operating under an official Exemption. This clearly comes under the twin headings of Ludicrous and If It Ain’t Bust Don’t Fix It. Yes, buzz jobs cause funerals – but there is no evidence whatsoever that a 500ft height limitation would (a) be obeyed, and (b) make any difference. To its credit, the CAA is looking very hard at the SERA proposals, and is not beyond rejecting (or quietly navigating around) same.




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