December 1, 2001
Mark R. Twombly
Mark R. Twombly is a former editor of AOPA Pilot who now lives in Florida.
When one of my VFR charts reaches the end of its useful life, it doesn't get pitched, it gets shelved. My office bookcase houses a respectable stack of these out-of-ate aeronautical charts, which I use for reference purposes. Occasionally I pull one out and recall where and when I flew in the area covered by the chart. I did just that recently with two of the charts in the stack — the New York and Baltimore-Washington Class B VFR terminal area charts. I did it to remind myself of some of the wonderful freedoms I enjoyed as a pilot up until a couple of months ago.
Despite having some of the busiest and most complex airspace in the world, the New York City and Baltimore-Washington terminal areas were accessible to almost any pilot willing and able to study the rules and fly by them. That access was defined by Class B exclusions — corridors and flyways that pilots could follow to transit the terminal areas without an air traffic control clearance, and without bothering the mostly high-speed commercial traffic frequenting the many nearby airports.
These low-altitude side streets in the sky (they were too narrow to be called highways) offered something else, too — spectacular sightseeing opportunities. One of the best was the Hudson River corridor in the New York City Class B.
I can recall flying up and down the Hudson at about 1,000 feet msl, below the floor of Class B airspace, constantly scanning for conflicting traffic and periodically announcing my position on the charted advisory frequency. Like bees at a hive, huge airplanes were coming and going in every direction just a few miles distant. La Guardia Airport lay just beyond the skyscrapers to the east, Kennedy Airport was slightly southeast, Newark, New Jersey, was just to the west, and Teterboro, New Jersey, one of the nation's busiest general aviation airports, was just off to the northwest. Yet there I was, flying low and slow perhaps one-quarter mile west of Lower Manhattan, looking up at the New York City skyline and its dominant feature, the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
Each time I flew the Hudson River tour I marveled at how fortunate we pilots are to be able to do such things. It truly was an unbelievable experience.
The only thing to top it was the Potomac River tour through Washington, D.C. Unlike the Hudson River Class B exclusion, the Potomac tour took place in the very heart of the Class B airspace associated with Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. That meant requesting and receiving a clearance from Washington National approach controllers.
A couple of factors had to come together to make the Potomac tour work. First, the weather had to be good VFR, especially the visibility. Second, the approach controllers at Reagan National (DCA), whom I rate as among the finest in the country for their consummate skill and can-do attitude, had to have the time available to work a VFR aircraft not landing at DCA. Third, the controller had to have confidence in the skill of the pilot. That confidence flowed from the pilot's professionalism in handling communications and the controller's instructions.
One Potomac tour in particular stands out in my mind. On a trip to France I had stayed with a couple who live near the Normandy coast, and they took me flying over the shell-scarred bluffs and gray beaches that Allied forces stormed in June 1944. It was a moving experience, and when they visited me in the United States, I wanted to return the favor.
We took off from Frederick, Maryland, in my Cessna 172 and tracked the Monocacy River south to its confluence with the Potomac, then followed it south to Washington. The approach controller approved my request for a clockwise circle of downtown D.C. As we flew down the Anacostia River on the southeast side of the city, the controller instructed me to head directly toward Washington National airport, then turn north up the Potomac.
"You'll be flying toward traffic inbound on the Potomac River approach," he said. "At my command immediately turn right over the city."
The next few minutes were the stuff of lifelong memories. After making the right turn northward, Washington National passed by on the left side, followed immediately by the sprawling, formidable Pentagon. On the right was the Tidal Basin with a backdrop of the Washington Monument, the Ellipse, and the White House. As the Lincoln Memorial slipped under the right wing we looked down the Washington Mall to the U.S. Capitol building and, hidden among the many pale white federal buildings, the Supreme Court.
The controller gave us a heads-up on opposite-direction traffic, a Boeing 727 inbound on the river approach. He added that he would turn us before he, the 727 crew, or I got nervous. His plan became clear: Wait until we passed north of the prohibited area covering the White House, then turn us east before we were abeam of the prohibited area over the Naval Observatory, home of the vice president.
That's just the way it happened. At his command I made a crisp right turn to fly east over Georgetown, and we enjoyed an even closer look at downtown D.C. The controller handed the inbound 727 off to the tower and then turned his attention to the next set of blips on his radarscope.
It used to be possible to fly a small airplane down the Hudson River looking up at the World Trade Center, and up the Potomac looking down at the Pentagon. It was possible because everyone involved — pilots, controllers, the FAA — had confidence in each other and in the system. Listen up and play by the rules, and you get to participate.
As of September 11 it's no longer possible. Not because we in the aviation community lost confidence in each other, but because the murderous, suicidal actions of a few changed our notion of what is dangerous and possible.
It's easy to assume that many of the flight restrictions still in place following the September 11 attacks will become permanent. We live in a new United States, one in which security concerns take precedence over privileges. I should accept the reality that I'll never be able to make another low and slow flight over the rivers flanking New York or Washington.
I don't accept that inevitability. Piloting a light aircraft around our major cities should not be seen as a perk of the privileged that is easily dispensed with in the name of national security. First, it was done only under highly controlled conditions. Second, it was less a privilege than a wonderful symbol of the freedoms that define and distinguish this country.
My French passengers were rendered speechless by our tour of Washington. It is unheard of for general aviation aircraft to fly over Paris, yet there we were enjoying a thousand-foot-high view of the institutions that comprise the central government and military leadership of the most powerful nation on Earth. I'm sure my visitors returned to France with a new appreciation of and respect for what it means to live and fly in this country.
One key definition of freedom is the liberation from restraint, from the power of another. Once we have liberated ourselves from the power of fear being wielded by terrorists, we can return to the state of freedom that allows for ordinary citizen-pilots and their guests to marvel at up-close views of our spectacular cities.
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