FAA responds to ADIZ confusion

August 16, 2004

FAA responds to ADIZ confusion
No comfort for beleaguered GA pilots

The FAA has responded to AOPA's charges that a communications failure among government agencies, not the pilots of the governor of Kentucky's aircraft, led to the evacuation of the nation's Capitol June 9 - but the response isn't particularly satisfying.

"The FAA admitted its mistakes, but general aviation continues to bear the brunt of operations hassles and economic consequences of the ADIZ," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "And despite the fact that they screwed up, the FAA has not lifted the transponder notam."

"Frankly, their response is nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction to put more regulation in place to solve a specific screw-up with the governor's plane," said Boyer after reviewing the FAA's "six-point plan" released August 13. "They've done nothing to solve the very real problems confronting pilots and controllers trying to operate within the ADIZ.

"While we recognize the special security concerns surrounding the nation's capital, the ADIZ continues to impose an unfair and unnecessary economic and operational burden on general aviation," said Boyer. "It's time to commit the resources to reduce the ADIZ to the 15-nm 'no fly zone' for light aircraft and make this thing work, rather than issue more regulations restricting legitimate GA flying."

AOPA had fired off an angry letter to the FAA June 22 when the agency's first response to the incident was to issue a notam requiring general aviation aircraft to immediately exit the Washington Air Defense Identification Zone via the most direct route should their transponder become inoperative (see " AOPA to security officials: Stop making GA the scapegoat!").

In reply, FAA Deputy Administrator Robert Sturgell said August 2, "We agree that the problems of June 9 were obviously a breakdown in communication between the federal agencies within the national capital region and the lack of the appropriate equipment that could have prevented this incident."

The "incident" was a Kentucky State Police King Air flying Gov. Ernie Fletcher to Reagan National Airport (DCA) for President Reagan's funeral. The King Air was on an IFR flight plan, in constant contact with air traffic controllers, and had a waiver to land at DCA. (General aviation aircraft are otherwise prohibited at DCA.) The transponder stopped working before the aircraft had entered the Washington ADIZ, which is handled by the Potomac approach control radar (tracon) facility.

With an inoperative transponder, controllers manually attached the "data tag" to the blip on the radar screen and continued to handle the aircraft. But the fact that the transponder was inoperative wasn't properly communicated down the line.

As incredible as it may seem, security officials in the new, $20 million National Capital Region Coordination Center (NCRCC) weren't looking at the FAA's radar feeds. They had their own radar. So they saw a primary target without a transponder, and they couldn't see the data tag that the FAA had attached to the aircraft. The security people asked their FAA counterparts if they were tracking an unidentified target flying toward Washington. The FAA's liaison person said "no," because he could see the data tag and didn't know that the aircraft's transponder wasn't working.

The NCRCC scrambled fighters and U.S. Customs aircraft, and security guards at the Capitol began to evacuate the building, one of them reportedly running through the building yelling, "One minute to impact!" As the FAA later conceded in testimony to Congress, it "took longer than it should have" for the FAA and NCRCC to determine they were tracking the same target and that it was the Kentucky governor's airplane. Some press reports claimed that he escaped being shot down by mere minutes.

In the letter to AOPA, the FAA said it had resolved the problem by installing a feed from Potomac Tracon into the National Capital Region Coordination Center, had developed a "six-point plan to improve communication and coordination between FAA personnel and pilots flying into the Washington, D.C., Air Defense Identification Zone," and provided "clarification" about needing a transponder to operate within the ADIZ.

But when AOPA asked for the details of the "six-point plan," the agency had to scramble and didn't supply it until August 13. And the "plan" amounted to nothing more than "personally briefing" each controller that aircraft had to have operable transponders before entering the ADIZ and reminding controllers of their responsibilities. It did nothing to give pilots or controllers better tools to make the ADIZ more functional.

August 16, 2004