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These Hazards Aren't Marked On Maps, And They Cause Accidents Every Year

When you fly at a low level, obstacles like power lines are nearly impossible to spot. The following 4 accidents demonstrate where you should be extra vigilant.

Swayne Martin

Power Lines Are Rarely Charted

Unless power lines and towers are built over 200 feet AGL, they are not required to be charted on your sectional. This means if you're flying at low level, you can't rely on your sectional to help with obstruction awareness. Power lines that aren't visible from the air, like those running down the sides of streets or across fields, are not usually depicted.

Dirk Ingo Franke

However, when the FAA has decided to include a power line on a chart, they are strictly for landmark value. No altitudes are charted for individual towers and their depiction is intended to help you navigate by pilotage, or using visual landmarks outside of the airplane. The FAA designates these in the Aeronautical Chart User's Guide as "power transmission and telecommunication lines."

Usually, these lines are easily distinguishable from the air because they are located away from cities and towns, have clearings cut through forested areas, and have larger towers that are easy to spot. Large power lines may also be charted across lakes, rivers, and canyons.

Power Line Accident: River

From the NTSB's Aviation Accident Database:

On March 24, 2016, about 0750 eastern daylight time, an experimental amateur-built Harmon Rocket II, N729PS, was substantially damaged when it impacted terrain near Cheraw, South Carolina. The airline transport pilot was fatally injured.

Witnesses observed the airplane flying at or near "treetop height" at several locations in and around the town of Cheraw on the morning of the accident. One witness, who was working alongside the Pee Dee River, stated that just prior to the accident the airplane was flying along the river at tree top level when it struck a power line.

Examination of the accident scene by a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) inspector revealed that two power line cables were found severed about mid-span between two towers, one on each either side of the river.

According to FAA records, the pilot held an airline transport pilot certificate with ratings for airplane single engine land, airplane multiengine land, as well as a flight engineer certificate. His most recent FAA first-class medical certificate was issued February 25, 2016. He reported 13,289 total hours of flight experience, and 31 hours in the six months prior to that date.

Power Line Accident: Open Field

From the NTSB's Aviation Accident Database:

On April 30, 2017, at 1635 central daylight time, a Champion 7KCAB airplane, N1899G, impacted terrain following a power line strike near Collinston, Louisiana. The flight instructor and commercial pilot were fatally injured, and the airplane was destroyed.

A witness noticed the airplane approach from the north and circle a cornfield near his home. The airplane made a low altitude pass from south to north along the east edge of the field. Approaching a power line, the witness noticed the airplane pitch up and saw a "shower of sparks", followed by ground impact with a near vertical nose down attitude.

Power Line Accident: Canyon

From the NASA ASRS pilot safety reporting system:

During an approach to a dirt road within a canyon, my aircraft struck power lines. The major cause of the incident was approaching to land at an unimproved runway within a canyon. Power lines spanned the width of the canyon, and did not have markers to aid spotting the lines.

Power Line Accident: Low Final Approach

From the NTSB's Aviation Accident Database:

On April 24, 2017, at 1339 central daylight time, a Bellanca 17-31 airplane, N787TV, collided with high tension power lines and impacted terrain while attempting to land at the Jesse Viertel Memorial Airport (VER), Boonville, Missouri. The pilot and passenger were both fatally injured and the airplane was substantially damaged.

The airport manager witnessed the accident sequence. He reported that he saw the airplane very low on final approach for runway 18. As the airplane continued towards the airport, he saw it abruptly pitch nose low and descend into the terrain. He immediately contacted emergency service and went to provide aid.

Damage to the power lines were consistent with the airplane colliding with a power line from a set of power lines that were about 75 ft above ground level and about a 1/2 mile north of the approach end of runway 18.


What You Can Do

Impacts with power lines are problematic for any low flying pilot. The US Coast Guard even gave this powerpoint presentation to the FAA in an effort to improve the charting of power lines.

But until charting rules change, your best bet is to fly higher whenever you can, and if you do need to fly low, make a high level pass first.

Swayne Martin

Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, certified flight instructor, and a First Officer on the Boeing 757/767 for a Major US Carrier. He graduated as an aviation major from the University of North Dakota in 2018, holds a PIC Type Rating for Cessna Citation Jets (CE-525), is a former pilot for Mokulele Airlines, and flew Embraer 145s at the beginning of his airline career. Swayne is an author of articles, quizzes and lists on Boldmethod every week. You can reach Swayne at, and follow his flying adventures on his YouTube Channel.

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