Flying Post 9/11 — A New Kind of Clearance

Of course, military, law enforcement, and some emergency services and medical pilots have already run this gantlet of extensive background and criminal history checks, so it’s nothing new to them, but it may be new to you… and very soon. It’s already happening in our nation’s capital and goes something like this: You’ve satisfied authorities that you’ve never committed forgery, theft, assault, espionage, treason, robbery, arson, any felony offense, never unlawfully possessed any weapon or controlled substance, and that you have never intentionally or unintentionally violated a prohibited area or violated a restricted area more than once. You’ve passed your police and criminal background check, sat through the FSDO, ATC, and Secret Service briefings, submitted complete records of all aircraft you intend to operate to and from your designated base. You’ve been fingerprinted, filled out SF86’s and EPSQ’s, and your past residences and neighbors, schools, personal references, relatives, military history, foreign activities, past and present employers, financial history, and past medical history have all checked out. They’ve given you your own secret and unique identification code. About the only thing they didn’t subject you to was a lifestyle poly. In short, it’s been seven months and you’ve gone from blue skies and clover to a ‘black‘ world. Welcome to flying, post 9/11.

Fiction and reality seem to have collided. You’re finding that the anticipated thrill of carrying out closely regimented flight inside the safety net — and under the watchful eye — of Big Brother seems to have descended into some drab gray cinema verité depiction of Eastern Bloc gloom. Every time you come and go, you must identify yourself with your ID code, call a special number and file a flight plan (no DUAT allowed). Your identity is cross-checked against a list maintained at your airport, which shows the identity of all approved operators, and your flight plan gets forwarded to the Secret Service. Whether VFR or IFR, you must have a specific ATC clearance and route into and out of your Flight Rules Area, use mode C with a discrete beacon code, and maintain two-way communications; any deviation from these might arouse suspicion and invoke the use of deadly force. Whenever you land, you are required to secure the aircraft according to National Security guidelines. You are only allowed to close your flight plan on the ground, and once closed, the Secret Service gets notified.

So far, you don’t get frisked on the way to your airplane, or have to pass through any metal detectors. You aren’t asked to show your National Identity Card to armed security personnel stationed by the gates of a security fence at your small airport. And police officers don’t first inspect your airplane and verify the identities of all its occupants before you’re allowed to proceed. But everything else you just read, I did not make up. You may not have noticed the details, but they’re in FDC NOTAMs, the Federal Register, and as Special FAR 94 under CFR 14 Part 91. It’s reality.

  • The good news, if there can be any, is that at the moment, this applies only to a few hundred pilots who are based at three general aviation airports inside the newly-created Special Flight Rules Area around Washington DC.
  • The bad news, is that there are still some new places you’re not allowed to fly. There’s an FDC NOTAM for a small two nautical mile radius Temporary Flight Restrictions area over ‘ground zero‘ off a certain LaGuardia VOR/DME radial, and another for a three nmi radius TFR area near Cambridge Mass, but so far, that’s as far as it goes.

As we all know, except for very select operations, for two days after September 11 our entire National Airspace System became one huge Prohibited Area. As the NAS opened up, civil aircraft operations remained at a standstill within 25 nmi of Washington National. A few weeks later on October 5, that shrunk down to 18 nmi. Small ‘repositioning windows‘ were allowed for pilots to get their airplanes to friendlier turf. Then on December 19, a smaller TFR freed up several airports and removed the ‘enhanced Class B‘ restrictions, but College Park (CGS), Potomac Airfield (VKX), and Washington Executive/Hyde Field (W32) remained locked down. Finally (in mid-February) notice of an emergency final rule, agreed upon by the National Security Council, the Secret Service, the Department of Defense, and the Office of Homeland Security, known as SFAR 94, appeared as an FDC NOTAM and a few days later, in the Federal Register.

Note: To see the major additions of February’s regulatory web, visit and

Keep your nose clean. The Federal Aviation Regulations don’t get slimmer, and as the world gets more crowded and meaner, my first two paragraphs weren’t so much an attempt to mislead as they were an extrapolation. Over a half a century ago, Harvard behavioral psychologist B.F Skinner found that as you crowd more rats into a box, social order tends to suffer. We’re a bit more complicated than that… maybe… but don’t expect your freedom and dignity to remain the same forever, in the sky, or below it. To paraphrase an old expression, as goes Washington (in this case, Washington’s airports), in all likelihood, so shall go the Nation.

  • The first thing they’ll probably decide to do will be to look more closely at all pilot applicants, as well as anyone else in our society seeking other special sanctions (like with owning a weapon).
  • Then perhaps there really will be a National Identity Card. An April 1 release from AOPA indicates they have convinced the FAA of a need to have one’s certificates accompanied by some form of photo ID and this will soon get written into the rules.
  • Having a VFR flight plan might become mandatory.
  • Instrument Flight Rules operations may become compulsory, as would having an instrument rating, perhaps at first only within busier controlled airspace.
  • Rather than something around 70 hours, the average time required to earn a pilot’s license will eventually reach triple-digits.
  • As cockpit bulkheads become stronger, last week ALPA and other groups representing 90,000 professional airline pilots appealed directly to the President to allow firearms to be carried by flightdeck personnel — despite opposition by the Transportation Secretary and Office of Homeland Defense.
  • Studies are already underway on how to confer some emergency flight control capabilities to ATC for the purpose of thwarting wayward airliners — although one can only imagine the devastation if that system is compromised.
  • There is also work underway on the algorithms necessary to automate detection of rogue aircraft.

BOTTOM LINE: We’ll all be a little more security conscious and hope that our own vigilance will spare us undue regulation. There are biotech, utilities, transportation, telecommunications, defense, and other sectors, and someday there will be a security sector, perhaps an entire index itself. That may enlarge some portfolios, but for pilots, ‘they’ll‘ be watching. We may not be there yet, but they’ve started in Washington and the rest of us are still walking the tightrope. Watch your step; if you don’t, someone else will.