August 1, 2002
By Phil Boyer
Phil Boyer has served as president of AOPA since 1991.
Let me position in time the state of mind of your AOPA president as I write my monthly column. It's the Monday before Independence Day. A little more than a week ago a pilot flew within four miles of the White House, triggering a huge round of coverage in the national media. The VFR, commercial-rated pilot violated a special flight rules area that extended from the surface to 18,000 feet in a 15-mile radius around the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport Vortac. He was flying a Cessna 182 from New Hampshire to North Carolina and was transiting over the Baltimore-Washington Class B airspace at 10,500 feet. Once a fighter intercepted the pilot, he landed at Richmond, Virginia.
I would not want to have been in his shoes undergoing military questioning, but he eventually was released and the transgression was deemed innocent — possibly the result of avoiding severe weather in the area. While the pilot got by military and intelligence authorities, he is still not off the hook with the FAA. Obviously, AOPA had to respond to media inquiries about how and why a pilot could do this. At the same time, the government had to explain why fighter jets couldn't intercept the aircraft until it was well clear of the restricted area.
Since this highly publicized event AOPA's "intelligence network" of staff members has heard an increased buzz from our sources. Closed meetings at agencies like the Department of Defense, Secret Service, and National Security Council have discussed shutting down all operations except Part 121 (air carriers) within a 50-nm radius of Washington, D.C. Other rumors include 25- to 40-nm rings, with instrument flight only allowed in this airspace.
Despite numerous contacts, we could not get any definitive answers from the FAA or the new Transportation Security Agency (TSA). The association reported these rumors on our Web site home page. The result was that many pilots based near the nation's capitol who had planned to use airplanes for the full holiday week decided to seek alternatives. They feared they would depart and not be able to return. One member e-mailed me seeking information because he had rented a plane to fly with his kids to Florida. He canceled his rental and booked airline tickets because of the uncertainty. "Ya, ya, there are all those charts I bought that I don't need now, the updates to the GPS database, the bulk packs of batteries, and the ANR kits for the headsets that I just finished installing last night," he wrote. "But us rich pilots can afford to blow money on things we can't use, right?"
This morning when I came to work we learned that three (count them, three) violations of the airspace over Camp David (P-40) had occurred this weekend, while the president and his family were in residence. Two of the violations resulted in intercepts, and the highly embarrassed, but nonterrorist, pilots had a lot of explaining to do. Early this morning I got on the phone with the Department of Defense official tasked with airspace and FAA matters, and he stated, "This weekend wasn't the shining hour for GA," referring to the P-40 incursions. He went on to say he had been on the phone since 7 a.m. offering explanations to various military representatives. To make matters worse, this is the person I had hoped would bring closure to the uncertainty about restrictions for July 4 and thereafter.
Webster's dictionary defines frustration as "to prevent from attaining a goal or fulfilling a desire: thwart." It best describes the feelings of those of us who are working so hard to restore GA to a state as close to before September 11 as possible. Pilots who are not paying attention to changing airspace are thwarting that goal. We continue to advocate that GA is not a threat to the public. In fact, I am beginning to feel the greatest threat we pose is to ourselves!
Yes, outside of the pages of this member magazine, I will continue to cite the lack of FAA charts depicting temporary flight restrictions (TFRs), indicating these should be on the Internet for all to use. My new line with the media is: "How would you like to have someone give you directions by phone [referring to a flight service briefing] three hours prior to driving your car in a strange city? Then you make that drive with no street or highway markings, and the map you have lists none of the closed roads. Think this is promoting getting lost?"
Perhaps we have failed to communicate to all pilots that on the home page of AOPA Online there is a U.S. map that allows members and nonmembers to click through to plain-language notams. More important, each security-based TFR is accompanied by a graphical depiction of the restricted airspace on a sectional chart.
If you are reading this in the Pacific Northwest, or some other place far from the East Coast, you might think it doesn't mean anything to you. Well, you are wrong. Seattle has six TFRs that AOPA has been working hard to get eliminated or reduced. We thought our work would be done 60 days ago. Did we fail our members in the Puget Sound area, or did pilots who are violating the airspace right under the noses of the nation's decision makers send the wrong message?
Do your part to assist AOPA, your fellow pilots around the country, and the public perception of small planes. Check notams from every source available, and don't assume anything. We can't win the battle when we are fighting ourselves.
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