Can You Really Legally Land a Helicopter in a Fast Food Parking Lot?

Dave R. asks: A friend and I were arguing the other day about whether or not it’s legal to land a helicopter in a fast food parking lot like in Mr. Deeds when they landed at Wendy’s?

While the question of whether a helicopter can legally land in a fast-food parking lot may seem absurd on the surface, given the not totally improbable coming of ubiquitous drones capable of carrying people around from point to point, this question may actually have a lot of relevance in coming years. So can such aircraft currently legally land in random parking lots?

To begin with, it’s important to understand that in the United States, for example, the Federal Aviation Administration controls the airspace, making the rules in the air mostly uniform anywhere in the country.  As the FAA themselves note: “Congress has provided the FAA with exclusive authority to regulate aviation safety, the efficiency of the navigable airspace, and air traffic control, among other things. State and local governments are not permitted to regulate any type of aircraft operations, such as flight paths or altitudes, or the navigable airspace.”

While you might think this would make answering the question of whether a helicopter can land in a fast food parking lot legally as easy as looking up the appropriate Federal Aviation Regulation concerning helicopter landing guidelines, there’s an important caveat to note- while the FAA controls the air, local authorities control the ground, which throws a bit of a wrench on giving a simple answer.

We should also explicitly state that in our research, the rules here in the United States and the UK and a few other places we looked at are exceptionally similar, though for brevity, we’ll be focusing on the exact rules in the United States, which, again, are basically the same in this scenario as in places like the United Kingdom.

With those caveats out of the way, to start, if a helicopter pilot is in an emergency situation and a fast food restaurant parking lot is their best option for landing, they absolutely can land in such a parking lot in most cases with little fear of reprisal.

In fact, in the United States, if you’re experiencing an emergency in any aircraft, whether you officially declare it or not (usually via a “mayday” call or even simply saying “I’m declaring an emergency” on the radio), the Federal Aviation Administration fully allows you to throw most of the rules they have made out the window at your discretion, with similar exemptions put forth across the pond.

This is literally explicitly stated in the Federal Aviation Regulations in various sections, including most notably in the General Operating and Flight Rules section, Part 91.3(b): “In an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency.”

And, funny enough, the FAA is pretty vague about what constitutes an emergency, stating it is simply “a distress or an urgency situation.” So, technically, if you just really need to pee and want to land to use the restaurant’s bathroom, that can certainly constitute an urgent situation in which you are also in some level of distress…

Of course, follow this bad advice at your own risk, as a pilot can be asked to justify any rule breaking in such cases.

The FAA does allow its investigators to be extremely lenient about any such rule breaking during an emergency, even if pilot stupidity caused the original problem- this is to encourage pilots to not wait until things are dire to declare an emergency, as many people die every year who might have lived had they been less hesitant to say the words “I’m declaring an emergency” until it was too late for anyone on the ground to help them- see the Air Safety Institute’s excellent Youtube channel for many, many examples of this. However, with all that said, we’re guessing the FAA and local authorities might not look kindly on declaring an emergency because of your dire need for a chicken sandwich and fries.

Moving on from this type of emergency, it’s also noteworthy that air ambulances, besides being infinitely cooler than their ground-bound brethren, are also usually given wide leeway to land pretty much wherever they please if the given emergency they are responding to requires such. There are some exceptions to this, however, where in some regions they may be required to notify local authorities before making such a landing.

But, if someone at a McDonald’s, say, had a heart attack and required airlifting for some reason, these helicopters are allowed to land at said McDonald’s without needing any permission in most cases.

This all brings us to the more normal non-emergency situations. Can you land a helicopter in a fast food parking lot in that case?

To begin with, the pilot needs sufficient space to land, with the general rule being about 2 tennis courts’ worth of reasonably flat and empty ground, though this varies somewhat depending on the model of helicopter.

It’s also important to note that there are airspace rules helicopters must adhere to, which, among other things, in the U.S. and the UK mean maintaining at least 500 feet distance from people, a vehicle, or structure. Important to the topic at hand, though, is that there are several exceptions to this rule, including when landing or taking off.

And, it turns out that provided the pilot has permission from the landowner and they aren’t making an approach that violates any rules, they can theoretically land a helicopter anywhere there is sufficient space, even a fast food parking lot.

For example, in 2014 a helicopter landed in a Salem, Oregon parking lot, reportedly so that the pilot and passenger could go and buy some fishing gear. The local police were called by a random concerned citizen, but didn’t do anything about it as no laws were believed to have been broken, nor did the police who arrived on the scene deem that anyone in the general public had been put in any danger by this landing.

It was later discovered after the fact that the pilot didn’t have permission from the owner of the parking lot to land there. However, it does not appear even then that anything came of the landing other than that the pilot successfully acquired needed fishing gear in the most badass way possible.

However, the pilot and passenger did apparently draw the strong ire of one Molly Anderson, who didn’t agree with the police’ assessment that there was nothing dangerous about the landing. Said Anderson,

What a couple of idiots and jerks.  They could have easily distracted a driver and caused a major accident, or hurt or killed someone in the parking lot with the spinning blades.

On that note, as one helicopter pilot advised of such landings,

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?… 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.

And, indeed, we found countless helicopter pilots noting that landing at or near restaurants actually isn’t terribly uncommon. As another pilot stated, “I know of a couple of restaurants that love having a helicopter parked nearby.” After all, this gets eyeballs looking at the restaurant and potentially ups their cachet in the eyes of the general public.

There’s even one pub and restaurant in Oxfordshire, England, the Mason’s Arms, that went so far as to include its own designated helipad to try to attract customers wanting to fly in on a helicopter.

Looking beyond restaurants to events, yet another pilot stated, “I can’t think of a single instance, not one where a land owner or building owner refused me permission. A helicopter arriving significantly contributes to the pizzazz and profile of an event and I know of times when a heli would do a few landings at an event and it resulted in hundreds more people showing up.”

That said, if pilots are interested in keeping their rather expensive to acquire licenses, they would be well advised to not only get written permission from the landowner where they’re landing (technically written isn’t required, but having that on hand helps if the authorities are called in), but also to check local ordinances like noise abatement rules, which are quite prevalent in some heavily populated regions. As another example, in California, it’s absolutely forbidden outside of an emergency situation to land within 1,000 feet of a school without a permit, regardless of whether you have the permission of a nearby landowner or not.

Thus, given the countless rules and regulations a given municipality, county, or state might have in place, stopping at just asking permission from a landowner probably isn’t the best idea.

While checking up on all of this is a bit of a pain, planning any flight to a new area should include a lot of these types of activities anyway. For example, a typical pre-flight should include checking the weather, extensive flight planning, pre-flight checks of the aircraft, etc.

So if you’d like to land at a McDonald’s with a suitably large and empty parking lot, you simply have to add a few more check boxes to the flight planning stage, including contacting the owner of the land, checking local ordinances, and it’s also generally a good idea to call your insurance provider as well, just in case.

But once you’ve jumped through the appropriate hoops, such a landing on private property is usually going to be just fine in many regions, at least once.

You see, there’s always the chance that someone on the ground will complain. For example, as one pilot stated, “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…”

But to sum up, in places like the U.S. and U.K., and many others, you can absolutely land a helicopter in most parking lots if you felt like it, so long as you have adequate room to land safely and, as with most things in life, you ask nicely, are granted permission, and don’t annoy too many people in doing it.

As one pilot aptly advised of such landings,

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…. [Also] 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.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

Bonus Fact:

  • The preceding pretty well covered private property landings, but what about landing on random public property? In this case, it’s almost universally a no-go unless you’re experiencing an emergency or if you can somehow get a permit first. As with private property, a quick phone call to city hall is usually a good idea. If nothing else, they can direct you to who you need to call to get final permission, if it’s possible at all for a given bit of public property. For example, in New Jersey, off established helipad landings are technically prohibited everywhere, whether private or public property, but this can be worked around via simply applying for a permit, which generally takes about one month to process and costs $10 per day for the duration of time you’d like a given location to be considered a “temporary helipad”. New Jersey is also one of the rare places where even emergency medical transport must notify the authorities before landing outside of an established helipad. If such permit was granted there’d generally be no issue with landing a helicopter anywhere said permission could be acquired. However, as alluded to, on many public lands getting such a permit isn’t always easy, or even possible at all outside of helicopters in service to the government in some way or the like.
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3 comments

  • Interestingly, although you quoted full paragraphs from a post on my website about legal landing zones, you did not link to the actual post, which can be found at https://www.aneclecticmind.com/2009/03/06/finding-a-legal-landing-zone/

    How about giving this “one pilot” some credit by name? I’ve written extensively about unusual helicopter flights and your readers might like to read more. You’re doing your readers a disservice by keeping your sources private.

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Maria Langer, we did actually in the references at the bottom of the article. But I’m happy to make that link more prominent for those who don’t notice the references. 🙂

  • A city where I once lived has a riverside path. One of the features on that path is the “Clear Water Market”. On an especially fine summer’s day, we started rambling down the path. There is a helipad near the path and on it was parked a substantial military helicopter. This raised our eyebrows and we stopped for a bit of a look, going back on our way filled with curiosity. Another couple of hundred meters, and much closer to the Market, we met a half-dozen soldiers walking back to the chopper, all licking extra scoop ice cream cones.

    I don’t know if that was their whole purpose in landing or not…but it looked damned cool.

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