Skyway Patrol

How to avoid getting chased by the FAA during a space shuttle launch

November 1, 2000

Opportunities for viewing a space shuttle launch from your airplane have improved, thanks to an increasing frequency of flights to support the International Space Station. Flights are scheduled at the rate of one a month through the end of 2000, and will increase from an average of four or five flights a year to eight in 2001. But don't let the experience turn into a violation of restricted airspace.

The FAA invited AOPA Pilot to view the September 8 launch of the space shuttle Atlantis from a rented Beech King Air, one of two aircraft the FAA uses to intercept intruders into restricted airspace during launches and landings. The aircraft are designated Patrol 1 and 2. In addition, a NASA security helicopter is available for intercepts of aircraft that threaten to delay the launch. Our King Air was the equivalent of a police cruiser; all we needed were a red light and siren. Even the doughnuts you might find in a police car were aboard.

Just sharing the same airspace with the shuttle was exciting enough. The solid rocket boosters, used during the early portion of the flight, trailed long flames as red as those from a campfire. A plume of smoke from the solid boosters and condensation from the liquid-fueled rocket motors easily led the eye to the shuttle itself, climbing at an ever- increasing rate; it took 29 seconds for the shuttle to reach the 9,000-foot altitude of Patrol 1. Atlanta FAA spokesman Tanya Wagner, also aboard the King Air, fired her point-and-shoot camera at the unusual scene just as many of the 20 general aviation pilots then circling below must have done. Most were out of the restricted airspace, but one wasn't. More about that later.

There have been 99 launches of space shuttles—the number will reach 100 by the time you read this. Small aircraft have delayed or contributed to a delay six times. Boaters caused two additional delays. Some of the pilots stumbled into the airspace by accident, but others—the ones who now have a 30-day suspension on their pilot records—did so intentionally to "get a better photograph," FAA officials said. To the latter we say, "Get a telephoto lens!" Stay out of R-2932, R-2933, R-2934, R-2935, and warning areas W-497A and B during space operations.

If you are planning a trip to Florida (nearly all the violations are by out-of-state pilots), there are three things you need to know immediately. First, if you plan to use a world aeronautical chart to avoid the airspace visually, there is an error on the chart including Kennedy Space Center (KSC). Not all of the restricted airspace is shown, and won't be until the chart is next printed in late December. The fan-shaped portion of the airspace, correctly shown on the Jacksonville Sectional Chart, is missing from the WAC. Already, one pilot has been tricked by this and ended up explaining himself to the FAA. That same pilot received a preflight briefing from a flight service station briefer who failed to mention the launch. Be sure to ask about the restricted areas if your path takes you down the east coast of Florida. The FAA has taken steps to assure that all briefings in the future include information about space operations.

Second, while there is a lot of publicity about launches, landings are scheduled but not confirmed until an hour before they take place. This means less publicity about landings, making it even more important to check notams. While a landing may not seem exciting enough to view from miles away in a small plane, it will become so when the FAA patrol aircraft pulls alongside you in flight. The airspace is equally restricted for both launches and landings.

Finally, penalties for delaying a space shuttle launch are likely to increase. AOPA Pilot has learned that NASA officials are unhappy with 30-day suspensions handed out previously to pilots who delayed launches. They want something stiffer and are talking with FAA attorneys about their request. There are no details on what those penalty proposals might be, but consider this: A 24-hour "scrub" of a fully fueled space shuttle costs $300,000.

Here's what happens when the Air Force controllers at nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station identify you as a threat to an on-time shuttle launch. (By the way, launch windows for flights to the space station are only minutes long.) You will be intercepted and possibly followed to your next airport. If you are followed, that means the FAA personnel are unhappy, and it is probable that local law authorities will meet you when you land. The FAA aircraft will land right behind you.

Got the visual on that? It will be you, your airplane, police or sheriff's cars with flashing lights, and an airplane with the letters FAA in the windows—one per window—parked nearby. Not a pretty scene. Then the local newspaper reporter shows up, thanks to his police scanner. And the TV news crew, too. Got any comments for the press?

You may run, but you can't hide. The FAA followed one pilot to Spruce Creek Airport, south of Daytona Beach, and landed behind him. As the FAA pilots landed, they heard, "FAA aircraft on the ground!" on the Spruce Creek unicom frequency. "Hangar doors slammed shut one after the other," an FAA official recalled. (Perhaps the FAA personnel should have announced that they had fresh doughnuts on board.) The intruder aircraft taxied to one end of the airport and the pilot fled. The N number, of course, gave him away, and a 30-day suspension of pilot privileges followed.

If your delay of the nation's space program was just to get a better view (stupid, in other words), you deserve the fame you will receive. On the other hand, you may innocently blunder into one of the restricted zones. You may not even know when a launch is taking place. If the FAA inspector feels that the error was an innocent one, and this is your first offense, there may be no sanctions at all. Just friendly advice.

"The majority of the pilots who get in trouble are transient pilots who are just not familiar with the area," said Bob Hunt, supervisor of the Orlando Flight Standards District Office and pilot of Patrol 1. "Most of them are going to the Bahamas or South Florida." He noted that during the John Glenn mission in October 1998, two or three of the intruders "just wanted to get as close as they could get, disregarding the airspace."

Two of those who violated the restricted area—intentionally, in the FAA's opinion—to capture a good photo on their point-and-shoots delayed the countdown for 19 minutes. It took that long for the FAA aircraft to get the intruders out of the restricted zone. While most intruders nibble at the edges of the airspace and leave, one of the intruders toured the entire area from north to south. Air Force Senior Airman Amber Mitchell was watching the radar that day and recalls that the screen was full of targets. In fact, the radar's processing computer froze.

"The screen locked up on us," Mitchell recalled. "It can only process 350 aircraft, and we had surpassed that number. The vast majority of them were spectators. We had five intruder aircraft. That was a very big issue, especially in the last minutes of the count. One caused us to go into an unplanned hold. Most times they are trying to get as close as possible to get a good picture."

But during our visit on September 8, it was a different story. There were no delays of the countdown. As mentioned earlier, one aircraft was in the restricted area but was determined by launch officials to be no threat to the launch. The pilot apparently forgot that the airspace has vertical boundaries as well as lateral ones, and was at an altitude high enough to place the aircraft inside a restricted area. Patrol 1, the aircraft in which this Pilot editor rode, was 5,500 feet above the intruder. Kennedy Space Center controller Mike Long reported the aircraft to Patrol 1, but Lead Controller Ron Feile had run a threat assessment on the aircraft using special software that you can't buy from Microsoft and found that there was no problem. Patrol 1 did not intercept the aircraft. Had it done so, a picture of it would have appeared in this article.

So, congratulations to pilots who watched the September 8 launch. And yes, you were on candid Air Force radar, if not our Pilot candid camera.

Hunt asked that, in the event of an intercept, I help by mounting the letters FAA in the porthole windows. He also asked that I consider which side of the aircraft the intruder would see, and not make the mistake of spelling it AAF. (The intruder would also have seen the last letter—whatever it was—disappear periodically so that photographer Rick Fowler could take a picture.) The letters aren't easy to see. Don't make the mistake of pilots in the past who, thinking that another spectator flew the FAA aircraft, issued a friendly wave. On previous missions, the FAA taped large letters to the outside of these rental aircraft. It worked well during flight, but the tape pulled the paint off afterward.

Despite what you may have heard, neither the FAA nor NASA has any interest in shooting an aircraft down, one official said. The rumors about "resources" available to NASA, the Air Force, or the FAA that involve use of force against civilian aircraft are untrue. (Yes, the NASA security helicopter has armed security forces aboard.) Our patrol was more like fish spotting than combat.

Don't get the impression that NASA wants nothing to do with general aviation pilots. When there is no space launch in progress, you'll find that it may be possible to fly over the space shuttle runway at 500 feet. Assuming that KSC Tower controllers do not have a caravan of heavy transport aircraft inbound, they just might approve such a request. Call them first on 128.55 MHz when the KSC tower is operating (from 8 a.m. to sunset). After that, Daytona Approach handles the KSC area and won't let you get as close to the shuttle runway. Careful, though. Immediately east of the shuttle runway lies continuously restricted airspace.

Why is it so important that officialdom interfere with your fun? The space shuttle Atlantis needed to reach the International Space Station, a fast-moving target, and had a launch window that was only a few minutes long. Mission commander Terry Wilcutt and his crew of six, including two Russian cosmonauts, trained hard for their mission. They obviously would prefer that nobody delay it. An incident, no matter how brief, would eat up the entire launch window and cause a 24-hour postponement. But let's not blame it all on privately owned aircraft. Boats are the bigger concern; their skippers may be willing to vacate the restricted area in the Atlantic Ocean when warned, but can do so only at slow speeds. That's why military support personnel stayed up all night on September 7 to clear the seas.

In addition to tougher sanctions against pilots violating the airspace, NASA and the Navy are completing a plan to deal with terrorist attacks on the space shuttle. The new plan should be ready in December. No details are known and probably will never be announced. But it is a good guess that pilots should be especially careful not to trigger the military's antiterrorism capabilities.

Some of the reasons for avoiding the airspace should be obvious. The first is that you don't want to be hit by the shuttle, becoming the first Cessna 152—or parts thereof—to achieve orbit. It's fast, and your see-and-avoid tactics won't work should the shuttle take a wrong turn. But less obvious are the needs of support aircraft.

Nearly 100 personnel, 50 of them military pilots, attended a space shuttle support briefing at Patrick Air Force Base near Melbourne, Florida, a day before the launch. Most of them operate military rescue aircraft that will take the most direct route possible to the shuttle should there be an accident. They need clear airspace in which to work. Two thousand KSC employees and 650 military employees had gotten up in the middle of the night to support the launch. You don't want to be the civilian pilot who makes them do that two days in a row. They'll wake up taking your name in vain.

A NASA Gulfstream II aircraft, designed so that it is able to land with a steep angle of descent like the space shuttle (see " No Go-Around," April 1999 Pilot), made repeated circuits of the area and several landings on KSC's space shuttle runway just minutes before launch. The purpose was to assure that the cloudy weather would not be a problem. Should the shuttle have an emergency, it might return to KSC. Frankly, it was a tight fit just to have Patrol 1 and the Gulfstream II in the restricted area.

Do we have enough reasons listed yet for not testing the patience of three government agencies? Here's a long shot, but one worth noting. That plume left by the solid rocket boosters is toxic and filled with aluminum particles. After the September 8 launch it drifted over KSC; space center workers were told they had one hour to wash their cars to avoid damage to the chrome. One worker didn't make it and has tiny pits in the chrome. Once the cloud disperses, it is harmless. But you wouldn't want to fly through it; it would cause a slight burning sensation on your skin.

While all the reasons above are more than enough to make you want to stay clear, they can't prevent inadvertent intrusion.

"It's complicated airspace," Hunt said. "We recommend that pilots stay four miles west of the [Indian] river that borders the airspace, and they will stay out of trouble."

Another suggestion is to read the instructions on the Jacksonville Sectional Chart. You'll find helpful frequencies, phone numbers, times when the areas are most often activated, and methods for looking up notams concerning launches. Notams are listed under Melbourne (MLB). The chart also explains that the darker tinted areas off Cape Canaveral and over Merritt Island are FAR 91.143 areas. That regulation says: "No person may operate any aircraft of U.S. registry, or pilot any aircraft under the authority of an airman certificate issued by the Federal Aviation Administration within areas designated in a Notice to Airmen (notam) for space flight operations except when authorized by ATC, or operated under the control of the Department of Defense Manager for Space Transportation System Contingency Support Operations."

For the latest information on future space shuttle flights, try an Air Force Web site ( www.patrick.af.mil) or, for general information, see a NASA Web site ( http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/index-m.html).

Only Patrol 1 and Patrol 2 are afforded the best seats in the air for space shuttle launches. No general aviation aircraft will get closer. There are two ways to be that close to the space shuttle: Get to know Bob Hunt and ride with him, or violate the restricted area and then get to know Bob Hunt.


Links to information about space shuttle flights can be found on AOPA Online ( www.aopa.org/pilot/links/links0011.shtml). E-mail the author at alton.marsh@aopa.org.

Al Marsh

Alton K. Marsh | AOPA Pilot Senior Editor, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.