The Last Straw

Remember the Cessna 182 that blundered into the prohibited airspace around Washington DC recently — the one that meandered within four miles of the White House — he didn’t mean any harm, right? Well I’ve got a hot flash for you: The Secret Service, the Department of Defense, and the National Security Council have already held closed-door meetings during which they discussed locking out everyone but the airlines from within a 50-mile radius of Washington, DC, along with similar measures around other cities. (Don’t just take my word for it. You can read Phil Boyer’s plea in the August issue of AOPA Pilot.) We’ve got to do better, folks.

As pilots, we enjoy a degree of freedom not even imagined by most. Whether we acquire a transcendent perspective on our world as a result of flight, or perhaps seek a higher window with a wider view to satisfy some inborn special need, is irrelevant: as a group, we see a bigger picture. Why then, can we not see where we’re going?

As pilots, we felt the anguish and cruel irony when the very emblems of our freedom were used against us, over ten months ago. And of course we feel righteous indignation over increasingly harsh and uncompromising regulation, and the price we must pay to remain free, although now perhaps, less so. Almost all of us have learned that although we may feel resentment, we will never return to where we were without cooperation … and time. But we cannot oppose malice and paranoia with ignorance.

Even though almost all are unintentional, they are no longer being viewed as isolated incidents. For too many, they are becoming the cumulative evidence of our potential menace. Let’s start with that inadvertent White House fly-by in mid-June (actually one of several). F-16s from Andrews AFB were scrambled and the White House was partially evacuated. It is not so unlikely that secret service agents were poised on the White House grounds with stinger missiles.

  • The Transportation Security Administration undersecretary announced a new security focus on general aviation.
  • The director of security for the TSA’s Chicago region declared that small airports pose a significant security threat.
  • Later that month, New York State police are notified of a small plane flying low over three reservoirs, and a caller reports that the aircraft dropped something into one.
  • An airplane violates a TFR while loitering in the vicinity of a forest fire.
  • In late June, a Beech and then a Cessna penetrate the guarded airspace around Camp David (while the President’s family was there), twice incurring closer inspection (and interdiction) by F-16s.
  • Two ultralights do the same thing, and even the Soaring Society of America issues a warning to its membership.

In early July, a C-182 and a Super Cub in NYC allegedly buzz a Queens beach, a cruise ship, and a bridge, going so far as to ignore visual warnings from NYPD helicopters. Local authorities indeed did bring criminal charges of reckless endangerment. Needless to say, incidents like this one put an impossible burden on lobbyists who are working to make certain that any future security measures applied to GA are realistic and useful. The TSA initiates its “Twelve Five” security program for Part 121 and 135 aircraft weighing 12,500 pounds or more, and the FAA posts a special “Vigilance Alert” to the GA community to monitor ramp areas, secure unattended aircraft, and verify the identity of personnel.

The EAA also issues a stern admonition to the GA community to “demonstrate the highest level of responsibility and sensitivity” to our government’s uneasiness regarding security. AOPA President Phil Boyer warns every pilot that even accidental violations will hurt us. But events such as those outlined above are only further convincing the agencies involved in security and national defense that general aviation is not taking TFRs seriously enough. The EAA warns that, in addition to fines, we may see criminal prosecution, certificate revocation, and aircraft seizures. (At least eight states have pursued legislation to require background checks for anyone seeking a pilot’s license. In the case of New Jersey, a bill sits on the Governor’s desk which would require any pilot to undergo a criminal background investigation if they seek any instruction.)

Granted, when the nuclear TFRs first came out, pilots were deprived of precise latitude and longitude data, and it appeared as though the mushrooming numbers of “keep out” areas were deliberately intended to snare innocent GA pilots, rather than sociopath Muslim extremists.

But can you see where this is going?

Just as aviation’s various alphabet organizations (EAA, AOPA, NATA, etc.) rally for our cause, who is to say when the many governmental organizations serving a far larger constituency might also band together and strike us down, all in the name of the common good? Perhaps it might seem advantageous that both our current president as well as his father were pilots, but I hasten to add that the one currently at the controls flew in the Texas Air National Guard, and not with the EAA.

None of us knows, truly, what would be the last straw.

There is a rule we always break that we nonetheless must always strive to satisfy, and that is Part 91.103, which requires us to become familiar with all available information pertaining to each flight, before we leave the ground. (These days, that often means immediately prior to doing so.) Things have gotten better though, as several government agencies and aviation organizations — even the FAA, to some extent — have come up with enormously helpful sources of information to help pilots visualize and identify all of the rapidly changing flight restrictions. As pilots, we certainly ought to make use of these. Here are a few…

These first two Web sites, under the aegis of Interagency Airspace Coordination, are particularly helpful for pilots out west. This first one (click here to visit) offers daily updates and graphical depictions of changing TFRs around forest fires, including overlays on sectional charts. (Warning: Not all TFRs show up, and the situation can change from minute to minute.) Clicking on the IAC icon at the bottom brings you to a page that has many other TFR links and many other airspace-related information sources.

This next site is brought to you by the folks at the Bureau of Land Management. Click on the BLM map and you are brought to a utility suspiciously like’s “SmartChart“, where one can view TFRs in either a vector chart format, WAC, or sectional. Here too one can see TFRs by state, or search for them by city/state, TFR#, airport, navaid, or even by zip code.

Then the AOPA web site, which offers probably the most comprehensive general collection regarding all airspace and regulatory developments.

Finally, the FAA itself has recently begun publishing graphical illustrations of some of the TFRs, including P-40, the DCA Special Flight Rules Area, and P-49 in Crawford TX. Visit the FAA’s NOTAMS web site.

BOTTOM LINE: It can take many hours or days for a TFR to make its way through the bureaucracy, down to the Web weenies who put together the image that you see online. The sites mentioned in this article are listed to aid in understanding TFRs — they are not a substitute for requesting the information directly from a flight briefer at an FSS. Always call a briefer and ask for the latest information on TFRs and NOTAMs. There are no bounds on caution in this regard; in the spirit of 91.103 this could conceivably entail a cell phone call just before — or after — engine run-up. (I know: gimme a break…)

Posted in Law