Operation Hideaway — You Won’t See It Coming

These days, we’ve all been boning up on interception procedures, and we’ve been getting our NOTAMs and checking them twice, but sometimes that doesn’t help. Last Sunday, something happened for which no one could possibly have prepared. A flight instructor and his student, returning to their nearby home base of Gaithersburg Maryland, had just departed from nearby Frederick (FDK), Maryland, at night, and were practicing the NDB approach back into Gaithersburg. Now, the nearby prohibited airspace around Camp David, it’s P-40 airspace has ballooned out to an eight mile radius (which is just over halfway to FDK), and they were nowhere near it, but that didn’t stop them from being intercepted by a pair of F-15s.

Unfortunately, F-15s do not have VHF capability (F-16s do) and a Maryland State Police helicopter was added to the mix to assist in communicating with the instructor/student duo and directing them to land, as it happened, back at Gaithersburg. The entire residential community around the airpark got treated to an impromptu low-level afterburner light show (our taxpayer dollars hard at work).

So what did the instructor and student do wrong?

Almost no one (until now) has ever heard of Operation Hideaway. That’s the military code name for a refueling track that’s up between 20 and 25 thousand feet around Camp David and the prohibited airspace that overlies it. In the aftermath of 9-11, the top of P-40 went from 5,000 ft to twenty-five thousand feet, is now also a Combat Air Patrol (CAP) area, and is occupied full-time by air refueling tankers. It is those tankers that feed the fighters guarding our Nation’s capital.

Operation Hideaway is also the name for a situation that can dramatically re-shape P-40 under certain circumstances — and you won’t ever see the changes announced in any NOTAM…

  • Whenever the President or other dignitaries travel between the White House and Camp David Camp David’s P-40 airspace can grow from its present 8 nautical mile radius (it was three, pre-9-11) to a radius of 25 nautical miles. Note: these trips occur most often on a Friday or Sunday afternoon, but can take place at any time.
  • Also, when one of the nine or so controllers working their sectors aboard an AWACS spots something suspicious moving anywhere near P-40, they can transform P-40 from its present size to a radius of 25 nautical miles. (The AWACS, as you may know, can spot moving aircraft out to 200 miles, from the ground up.)
  • Operation Hideaway automatically goes into effect whenever there is any other interception — theoretically to give our fighters some maneuvering room (provided of course, we stay the heck out of the way).

Incidentally when the presidential helicopter and airborne entourage makes its way into and out of P-40, there’s an automatic four nmi no-fly zone radius around all of them. As it turned out, that was part of Sunday’s action.

It doesn’t last long; this all happens within 10 to 12 minutes. The Secret Service will call the Hagerstown tower and shut HGR down. Trap: They do not bother calling non-towered fields like Frederick or Gaithersburg, so there is no way local pilots could know… unless you’re intently listening on 121.5 (they are supposed to broadcast it on that frequency).

The fact that the FAA hasn’t publicized the ‘security parameters’ involved here doesn’t exactly help keep area aviators out of trouble, either.

Well, OK so they made the world safe for democracy, right? The pilot landed, was told what happened, did a V-8 slap, and said, ‘Oh gee, I’m sorry.’ Then the FAA shook his hand and said ‘That’s OK John, we just had to check. So long now.’ Well, perhaps it would have worked that way, but as Lord Byron once said, ‘Truth is stranger than fiction… because fiction must make sense.’ So, here’s what really happened.

First off, the CFI has an Islamic-sounding name: Sharif Hidayat. (Actually it’s Egyptian, but he is an American citizen.) In fact, they hadn’t been inside or even near the expanded prohibited airspace that went supernova, it was something else. Sharif was in the right place, but at the wrong time.

From The Interview: Sharif found out — and told me — that he and his student did manage to get too close to Marine One, as it lumbered back to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. (It was nighttime, and distances are hard to discern at night.) Sharif was ‘interviewed’ by the Secret Service, and said that they were very professional — they did not show the slightest prejudice because of his name.

Prior to September 11, incursions similar to this (say, busting P-40) would have at least resulted in a discussion with a FSDO examiner … and some remedial training. Clearly brushing up to Marine One while en route is a different matter, but the matter is now out of the FAA’s hands, anyway. The Secret Service ‘owns‘ the prohibited airspace around Washington and they can call for an automatic 150-day suspension at their own discretion. Apparently, this time around, they were nice guys; Sharif is back flying, and won’t be violated (unlike Marine One’s airspace).

Sign of The Times: Including this little episode, Operation Hideaway has been invoked three times since September 11. It has not yet resulted in any violations, but I’m still waiting to hear back from FAA Special Affairs with their take on this incident.

If ever a parcel of airspace engendered trepidation, it would be prohibited airspace. Short of trespassing through a live MOA, prohibited airspace — which exists most often due to reasons of national security — is about the most intimidating airspace there is. Designated under FAR part 73, prohibited airspace — by definition — is an area within which no person may operate an aircraft without the permission of the ‘using agency‘.

Prior to September 11, there were only nine parcels of prohibited airspace in the entire US — three of which are in the Washington, D.C., area. These are P-40 (Camp David); P-56 (A and B, over downtown Washington DC); and P-73 (Mount Vernon). The others are P-47 in Amarillo Texas; P-67 in Kennebunkport Maine; P-204, P-205, & P-206 in northern Minnesota; and more recently, P-49 — effective May 17, 2001, over the Crawford, Texas residence of President Bush. Of course, afterwards, the nuclear TFRs popped up. While they were not strictly speaking prohibited areas, they made that single-digit number instantly obsolete. These days, many of these prohibited areas — like P-40 — extend much higher than they used to (as in the case of P-40).

BOTTOM LINE: If you are going to fly anywhere near a prohibited area, check those NOTAMs. Once you’re up, monitor 121.5, and call any local ATC frequency right away. Let them know who you are, what you want (probably just to be left alone) and where you’re headed — that means flight following, even for short excursions, for you VFR jocks. Give any prohibited airspace a wide berth… wide, as in 25 miles. Oh, and if you ever see three large helicopters in transit, stay far away.