Two months ago I could casually jump in an airplane and fly about wherever I wanted. A favorite flight was up and down the Tennessee River between the Sequoyah and Watts Bar nuclear powerplants, 1000 feet above the picturesque waters. Now, we can’t fly, even in contact with Air Traffic Control (ATC), without some serious flight planning first. “For reasons of national security” we need to check the Flight Data Center (FDC) Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs) and learn where we can’t fly today.
RESTRICTING FREEDOM FOR SAFETY
We all learned (and promptly forgot) about Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) while studying for our pilot certificates. The Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) defines TFRs as “restrictions caused by such things as natural disasters or large-scale public events that may generate a congestion of air traffic over a site.” Mostly we were taught that TFRs existed over sporting events and where aerial firefighting was under way. If you read a little deeper into the AIM you’d learn about National Security Areas (NSAs), “where there is a requirement for increased security and safety of ground facilities.” The AIM tells us “pilots are requested to voluntarily avoid flying through the… NSAs.”
Personal Insight: The only NSAs I ever encountered before 9/11 were the controlled firing areas (CFAs) around missile test and space launch facilities… and the military stopped its activity when pilots flew into CFAs, not the other way around. Now, of course, we have no-notice NSAs and TFRs popping up all around — and we learn about them through FDC NOTAMs.
WAR STORY #1: SMILE FOR THE FIGHTER-JETS
After weeks of frustration a friend was finally cleared out of an airport within the Washington, D.C. “no fly zone.” Having read up on air intercept procedures (AIM Chapter 5, section 6), he was ready when ATC warned he’d be “joined” by a pair of fighters. He was on an Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) clearance through a “cold” Restricted Area in coastal Virginia when the two Air Guard F-16s made his acquaintance. He took pictures of them … and I bet they took pictures of his red-and-white Bonanza. Since he was already on an IFR flight plan and identified along a preplanned route, this was likely just a practice intercept for the benefit of the Guard pilots — but it’s a part of the new reality that we’re under intense scrutiny, and expected to follow flight plans precisely.
WAR STORY #2: NO, YOU CAN’T CANCEL IFR
A friend of mine was a passenger on a corporate aircraft. It was a clear day and the pilot was GPS-direct to the home airport, about 20 miles out, when suddenly ATC ordered an “immediate” turn 90-degrees off course. With destination in sight, the pilot replied he’d cancel his instrument clearance, but the controller replied, “Negative, I need you to stay with me for a few minutes.” The pilot had stumbled into a TFR area around a nuclear powerplant, (try finding one from the NOTAMs, it’s not as easy as it… should be) and controllers needed to maintain contact until he’d left the 10-mile zone. In this case, the TFR FDC NOTAM had been issued after the pilot briefed and filed his instrument flight plan, but before he took off an hour or so later.
WAR STORY #3: MY STORY
In early October I flew a Bellanca Citabria on a photo-mission of some job sites in western Tennessee. On my way to the airport I heard the sobering tale of a suspected terrorist act in progress — what turned out to be the attack on the driver of a Greyhound bus, which caused a crash and cost the lives of ten passengers, including the assailant. I’d already received a full preflight briefing to include an update on TFR areas, but I was planning to use as my primary navaid the interstate highway where the attack took place for my trip. With that in mind, I called Flight Service again and specifically asked if there were restrictions over the crash scene. “None that I know of,” replied the briefer, “but watch out for the news helicopters.”
THE SYSTEM’S NOT PERFECT…
I took off and flew in pristine skies. At about 1000 feet above ground level (AGL) I was too low for reliable Air Traffic Control (ATC) or Flight Service Station (FSS) radio contact. I could see a couple of high-wing airplanes and a helicopter orbiting the crash zone from twenty miles out in the crisp, autumn air. Adhering to the “new standard” for flight in the U.S., I was monitoring 121.5, the emergency frequency, on the Citabria’s lone radio; as I neared the scene I flipped between 121.5 and the two air-to-air frequencies, 122.85 and 122.75, listening for any information about flight restrictions.
…AND NEITHER AM I
I flew wide of the accident scene, avoiding the circling newsplanes. I heard nothing on any of the “expected” frequencies. Only when I switched to the UNICOM frequency of an airport twenty miles away from the accident scene did I hear someone identifying himself as “AIR 82” describing a TFR of three miles around and 3000 feet above the wreck — I’d probably busted that airspace. I availed myself of the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) amnesty program, noting that the system broke down that day by not broadcasting on air-to-air and emergency frequencies.
THERE ARE SOME THINGS WE NEED TO DO — NOW
- Rapidly changing TFR information needs to be broadcast over existing navaid frequencies like the HIWAS weather system is now.
How: ATC should broadcast “in the blind” every 15 minutes that “Temporary Flight Restrictions are in effect, monitor HIWAS or contact Flight Service for details.” Similar calls should be made on 121.5 for those not monitoring other frequencies.
Example: Agencies attempting to control access to local TFR areas like the bus crash I encountered should do so on the established 122.75 and 122.85 air-to-air frequencies, or on a new common frequency (like 122.0 is for Flight Watch) reserved and publicized for local TFR control.
- Pilots need to accept their part of the responsibility and check NOTAMs before every flight, and to monitor any frequencies established for in-flight TFR information.
- Non-radio equipped airplane pilots traveling away from their home field should invest in a low-cost handheld receiver or else be willing to accept exclusion from large blocks of airspace in times of crisis
FAA and other authorities have to provide pilots the information we need to avoid TFR areas like nuclear powerplants — a tricky tightrope to walk, because many in government don’t want to publicize the lat/long of potential targets. If you fly into a TFR area inadvertently, file an ASRS report to protect yourself from enforcement action.
“We are at war,” the President tells us, “and we’ll have to make sacrifices.” It’s easy to say, but difficult to stomach when those “sacrifices” affect the way we fly. Maybe it’s the Former Military Officer in me, but I think we’ll have to cooperate with flight restrictions for now if we want to retain freedom of flight at all. Even an ATC clearance doesn’t replace your requirement to avoid TFR areas, and the fighter pilots may have the authority to shoot you down (read: KILL YOU AND YOUR PASSENGERS) if you stray into a “no fly zone.” Ignorance of the law is no excuse — now more than ever before, you’ve got to check NOTAMs, including FDC NOTAMs, before and during every flight — even if just in the airport traffic pattern.