March 1, 2002
By Bruce Landsberg
Bruce Landsberg has served as executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation since 1992.
The tower controller, transmitting in the blind, was insistent. "Aircraft 15 east of Hagerstown, you are about to enter P-40. Turn north immediately." No answer. Moments later a Piper Cherokee pilot announced his position as 12 miles east of the airport, inbound for landing. The tower again instructed the pilot to turn north. The pilot acknowledged but it was too late.
Prohibited Area-40 is a small piece of airspace over Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains, about 50 miles northwest of Washington, D.C. It is also traversed by many VFR flights to avoid the congested Washington Class B airspace to the southeast. Since the September terrorist attacks, more than 60 aircraft have run afoul of P-40, which was expanded from a radius of three miles to eight miles and from 5,000 feet msl to 12,800 msl. Direct flights between certain local airports or the routine use of the Hagerstown ILS are no longer possible. What was legal and safe before is no longer. Old habits die hard and many local pilots have forgotten that the shortest distance to a violation may be a straight line.
F-16 Falcons flying Combat Air Patrol above did not descend for an intercept this time. Had the aircraft strayed farther into the area, the lead F-16 might have pulled up alongside while the wingman stayed behind, in firing position. There would have been massive communication between Airborne Warning and Control (AWAC) aircraft, ATC, and Secret Service to determine hostile intent. There is very little time, and any move perceived as threatening could have easily resulted in the destruction of an innocent aircraft. It could also have nailed a bad guy.
Upon landing, the Cherokee pilot was given a telephone number to call for an audience with the Secret Service. When there is an intercept, the state police usually greet the aircraft and keep the pilot entertained until the Secret Service arrives for an interview. This could be several hours depending upon workload.
In a few cases, pilots who were well aware of the area claimed to be at least half a mile away, as shown on their GPS or moving map. Without going into too much detail, let's just say that there is enough radar energy over this airspace to cook your lunch as well as the pilot's goose, and some of this radar equipment is very accurate. Your case is unlikely to stand.
In the days before the expanded P-40, there were typically two penetrations a month. Now they are averaging three a week. What to do? The FAA Eastern Region safety program manager asked the AOPA Air Safety Foundation to help. It started with posting a graphical depiction of the temporary flight restriction (TFR) on the AOPA Web site, creating a poster that could be distributed to local airports, and beefing up the advertising for ASF's online course on how to behave in the airspace. A similar problem also developed in Crawford, Texas, outside Waco, where P-49 overlies the president's ranch. Several local AOPA ePilot alerts were sent out to remind weekend fliers to remain clear.
Despite this, some in the pilot community still haven't gotten the word. The transgressors are mostly VFR pilots and the stories are interesting. One pilot received his notam briefing the day before the flight—a lot can happen in a day and it did. Another pilot claimed that he was clear of the charted prohibited area, and he was, but the TFR had expanded it—this pilot had no idea about TFRs. Several said that it had never occurred to them to check, and they wondered how airspace could be modified so quickly. These transgressions have some serious potential consequences and give those who would deny us access to the skies some potent ammunition. FAA statistics to date show that about half the pilots involved are local and half are transients. For the transients, the situation is at least partially understandable. The notam system is a mess. Both AOPA and ASF have complained about it for years. Before the September attacks, there were some vitally important notams, but many were of little operational significance. There is finally some movement to allow the dissemination of the information on the Internet. I hope the FAA will address format and organization as well.
The notam system was established decades ago when teletypes were in vogue, so there are arcane codes and abbreviations. The system is organized to serve the government well but is poorly designed for the users. To prove the point, we asked for a full computer weather briefing on DUATS for a short flight from Frederick, Maryland, to Bradford, Pennsylvania, a distance of about 150 nautical miles. Here are a few examples of, shall we say, "non-pertinent" information:
Of course, if you're not going to Afghanistan, perhaps Salt Lake City is of interest.
Why does the Flight Data Center feel compelled to warn a domestic flight in the Mid-Atlantic region about flight operations in Afghanistan, the winter Olympics in Utah, and routing changes in the Gulf of Mexico? While we're fussing, in local notams, it is curious that an unlit tower, 258 feet agl, 15 miles from an airport not on the route is deemed worthy of notice. Anyone flying that low, at night, in normal flight operations, that far from an airport may find any number of unpleasant surprises. The legalities are perfectly clear, which is precisely why this system needs a large injection of common sense.
In all, the briefing included more than 130 FDC notams and 34 local notams. Unfortunately, a critical notam, the enlargement of P-40, was buried in the effluent from the printer, which when taped together was more than 35 feet long. Now that's what I call a briefing! It is only outdone by that great annual American paper chase, the marvelously incomprehensible and voluminous IRS Form 1040.
Rather than just throw rocks, I'd like to propose a few suggestions for improving notams. Make them geographically pertinent; just like weather reports, we only need notams in the trip zone. Make them altitude pertinent—most unlit towers less than 300 feet tall that are located more than three miles from the airport are irrelevant unless you're flying a helicopter. Make them operationally relevant—VFR flights do not need IFR notams. Make them understandable. Describe the notam in plain language, not in code or legal jargon. I'm sure you can think of something to add to the list.
This diatribe would amount to little more than bureaucrat bashing if it weren't for the fact that pilots are losing flight privileges; FAA inspectors, police, and Secret Service agents are wasting critical time; and most important, somebody may get shot down or miss an operationally critical notice because it was nearly impossible to find! Another possibility is that with so many inadvertent, innocent violations, a terrorist might actually be successful if we let our guard down. Let's make it much harder to be ill-informed.
Lest you think that the government is at all casual about this, here is the guidance that was issued in September from the FAA's Office of General Counsel to flight standards inspectors: "Under current agency policy, we expect your offices to propose a certificate suspension in the range of 150 to 240 days for a single inadvertent, first-time violation." The punishment seems a bit severe, especially when a pilot has no prior incidents. Before the attacks, most airspace infractions were handled administratively. The pilot received remedial training and was on probation for two years. If there were no further problems, his or her record was expunged. That's a much better way to deal with first offenses. Educate and rehabilitate the errant souls—most of them are trainable! According to one FAA Safety Program manager who has administered many of these remedial sessions, there was not one repeat offense during probation in the years she has conducted this program. That's impressive.
Most pilots earnestly want to avoid tangling with the FAA and Secret Service. If convicted, at least at the moment, you can be sure you will lose your flight privileges and you may get a permanent scar on your record. For career-oriented types, a violation is frequently the coup de grâce for any airline or corporate flying job. For the rest of us, insurance underwriters look long and hard at pilots who have been tagged.
There are four thoughts I'd like you to take away from this discussion: Check notams for every flight and do it just prior to departure. Do not skirt restricted and prohibited areas by slim margins. The government should fix the notam system so it is usable—the current iteration is unworkable. If you should be so unfortunate as to be intercepted, squawk 7700, get on 121.5 immediately, if you're not already monitoring it, and go wherever the interceptors take you. There will be plenty of time for explanations after landing.
See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject.
FAA Information and Services,
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