Forbidden City

…a few things you didn’t know about prohibited airspace incursions, and a few things that the Secret Service, FAA, NASA, and Slimy Contractors are considering in the Back Room:

Background (as if you need it)
Among the most sensitive airspace incursions are those involving violations of the two prohibited areas around Washington: P-56A (the White House) and P-40 (Camp David). Violations of the Temporary Flight Restrictions area around Washington since February 2002 occurred some 120 times for the period between June 1 and October 16). Frequent incursions into the TFR, actual penetrations of P-56A (and P-40), and close approaches of unidentified aircraft in the vicinity of P-56A have reportedly resulted in several sudden and acute interruptions and severe protective measures on behalf of President Bush. As I have pointed out before, both the sitting President and his father were pilots, but not within general aviation, and one of these days, something may prove to be the last straw. FAA records show that pilots have flown through the prohibited airspace protecting the White House at least 94 times over the past decade (and for Camp David about 100 times, just within a one-year period after 9/11).

A Close Look At The Numbers
According to information obtained during a telephone conversation in February 2000 with Mr. Bill Shumann from the FAA’s Public Affairs office…

  • in 1997 P-56 incursions occurred 41 times;
  • in 1998, 35 times; and in 1999, 26 times.

Based on a more recent conversation with him this past November it would appear that the frequency of actual P-56A penetrations is at about the 1999 rate (six incidents between June 1st and October 2nd, 2002). Surprisingly, not all involved personal aircraft; over the last three years about half involved corporate aircraft and air carriers (due primarily to the close proximity of tricky Northerly approach and departure routes for National Airport). Due to the greater security awareness after 9/11, the actual penetration rate dropped significantly, and since SFAR 94 went into effect, with only very limited private flying within an approximate 15-mile radius of the Washington Monument, Mr. Shumann recently remarked that P-56 essentially “isn’t a problem“.

The DC-Three: For three general aviation airports inside this no-fly zone (College Park Airport, Washington Executive/Hyde, and Potomac), any person operating an aircraft must conduct operations in accordance with very strict and elaborate security procedures (which in mid-December were relaxed only slightly).

What They’re Doing About Us
When contacted, the representative from the Public Affairs Office of the Secret Service, Mr. Jim Mackin, said that he could not comment on punitive actions initiated by that Agency, as that could possibly compromise their methods, and indirectly, national security. Nor would he comment on what surveillance equipment they may or may not have at their disposal, such as a rumored “radar repeater“, or even more speculatively, what “rooftop” defensive measures may have been put in place. (I’m not even going to go there.) Although the “incident rateis apparently greater than is the frequency of actual penetration, the results in terms of disruptions however, can be the same. The result is that there may be significant operational and procedural changes regarding the management of prohibited airspace.

More Gory Details…
Around the time of the Winter Olympics in 2002, SFAR 95 was instituted. It defined a 45-nm radius circle around Salt Lake City, background checks by the Utah Olympic Public Safety Command [UOPSC), and closed airspace to all “non-essential” traffic. There were also nine smaller no-fly zones, and a slot reservation program for four “gateway” airports around the Olympic ring. In addition, security inspections were required for charter operations, corporate operations, and general aviation prior to operating within the Olympic ring. The closest airport designated for inspections was Grand Junction, Colorado — 188-nm away. The average distance from SLC for all the inspection sites was about 280 miles. Operators and crewmembers had to file an application and undergo a criminal background check before getting approval to fly inside the ring. Further, operations were permitted only at the six public-use airports inside this ring. (An additional four were excluded, as they did not have control towers.) Operations such as flight training, agricultural operations, banner towing, or balloon and aerobatic flight were all banned … as were all ultralight aircraft.

…Not Done Yet
Hill Air Force Base’s 388th Fighter Wing flew continuous F-16 Combat Air Patrols, and other airborne assets included AWACS, military refueling aircraft, helicopters, local law enforcement, supplemented by additional aircraft on alert at Hill AFB. In addition to police, firefighters and medical personnel, there were federal marshals, U.S. Secret Service agents, and officers from the Border Patrol and the U.S. Forest Service keeping watch over some 900 square miles. Total security spending during only a one-month period was estimated near 300 million dollars. The end results for the average pilot were long waits trying to get in and out of the Salt Lake City area, an overbearing approval process, and burdensome flight rules. (In addition to paying about $65 in fees, pilots had to sign a consent form giving numerous unspecified state and federal agencies unlimited access to driving records, professional history and qualifications, educational background, military record, financial or credit background and employment records. Applicants had to provide fingerprints, color passport photos and an authorization for a criminal background check.) So, okay, Big Brother was watching. Is this likely to be a sign of things to come? I don’t think so. But don’t exhale yet. There’s more.

Some remarks, from the Master of the Obvious
First off, a duplication of flight restrictions such as those used during the Winter Olympics would not go over real well. The use of measures such as combat patrols and AWACS flights, slot reservation programs, and gateway security would be financially unworkable, in view of the above discussion of the costs of SFAR 95. Increasing the size and volume of SUA airspace would also cause a geometric increase in the number of affected operations. (A 45-mile circle would also include Frederick Maryland, the headquarters of AOPA, and would doubtless incur a firestorm of protest in the general aviation community.) Equally unpopular would be an expanded radius of security similar to those of SFAR 94, including increased airport security and background checks, even without the outright banning of private flight within this airspace. Secondly, the number of incidents during which authorities cannot identify a plane flying “near” prohibited airspace exceeds the actual rate of penetration. This indicates a conspicuous weakness, since we don’t know just where this “outer buffer” is. Significant increases in financial penalties or certificate actions for any actual inadvertent entry into prohibited airspace would most likely result in only disproportionately small reductions in the rate of their occurrence. (In the year 2000, the maximum fine for GA violations of P-56 was $1,100. Although it has only been imposed once, these penalties could be higher if the violation was combined with others such as failure to adhere to an ATC clearance.)

More Wildcards
A more punitive and inevitably unpopular measure may be a fairly obvious one: banning all “un-filed” VFR flying, NORDO aircraft, and non-mode C aircraft (with a discrete code or otherwise) within the Washington DC area within a given radius. Even more restrictive would be outright banning of VFR flight within a greater radius of the center of P-56A, beyond the current 15-mile zone that is currently in effect, or institution of compulsory Instrument Flight Rules operations (along with an instrument rating), perhaps at first only within busier controlled airspace. One good idea in my opinion (and unrelated to 9/11) was Barry Schiff’s idea of a so-called entry-level instrument rating; it would lessen incursions and encourage improved precision and proficiency in the pilot population, as well as expedite participation of more pilots in “the system“. More pilots could initially fly IFR but would still be required to remain in visual conditions. This would also have the effect of attracting more pilots to improve their ability to fly more precisely, obtain better mastery of attitude control and instrument approach skills, after which they could then receive a full instrument rating allowing flight in IMC. That’s way out in left field, but here are a few more think tank pop-ups regarding airspace structure and regulation:

First, as far as our avionics and ATC equipment: operational or technical changes to help warn wayward flyers might include integrating transponder and communication capability, where an aircraft’s active frequency is included in transponder telemetry and always known for every aircraft; or the capability for a ground-initiated “forced comm” built into avionics to display a “call ATC now” frequency.

Regarding ATC and traffic management: operational and procedural changes in ATC communication to something more “top down” such as indexing all traffic by N-number and communication across all airspace boundaries; pilot certification numbers incorporated into flight plan filing and following; intent/identity management in high-profile target airspace supplemented by enhanced aircraft identification and communication mentioned above; rogue detection algorithms for all aircraft deviating beyond established bounds from a filed route or current vectors and active for all aircraft approaching SUA; and no NORDO aircraft in Class B or C (with no advance notice exemptions).

On the subject of airmen: operational and procedural mandates might include that entry level “procedural” instrument rating; compulsory flight plan filing, regardless of weather; or mandatory VFR flight following with discrete transponder codes.

Concerning airspace management: operational changes such as not varying any SUA volumes over time (a major factor in incursions); or the use of five-mile outer buffers to prohibited areas. (Part 121 aircraft under 250 knots would have at least one minute warning, with proportionally more for slower and less communicatively integrated aircraft.) Also, modifications of outlying approach and departure corridors as needed, to avoid outer buffers; increased use of boundary waypoints/fixes/references to facilitate border identification; improved interaction between FAA, TSA, Secret Service, and DoD as to issuance, exact location, and criteria for new SUA properties; integrated/improved distribution for NOTAMs/TFRs; and ultimately some relaxation of flight restrictions around high-profile targets, as above measures might allow.

Although some of this may make it to one of the FAA’s advisory committees on rulemaking, air traffic procedures, or research/engineering and development — or maybe one of the associate administrators for air traffic services, research and acquisitions, or regulation and certification … or even the TSA’s Security Technology Deployment Office, I really doubt you’ll see any of these, because they involve widespread changes in airspace data, ATC tools, procedures, documentation, and training, as well as flight hardware and certification — all of which are constrained by bureaucratic labyrinths, time, and money. Still, you don’t have to be a charter member of the ATC Café to see the writing on the wall, and like Bob Dylan said, you don’t need a Weatherman to know which way the wind blows … but I could be wrong…

Posted in Law