Into the deep FRZ

December 22, 2008

Writer Dave Hirschman in his airplane Writer Dave Hirschman in his airplane.

I was flying amidst broken, cumulous clouds at about 7,000 feet, being vectored here and there by Potomac Approach, when a clear patch of sky revealed an amazing sight below: the Washington National Mall, Capitol, and White House, all spread out like ivory treasures beside the broad Potomac River.

It was the summer of 2001, and I was alone, ferrying an airplane from Atlanta up the East Coast.

“What an amazing country!” I remember thinking. “Where else could a regular citizen like me have the freedom to fly above his nation’s capital in a privately owned airplane?”

Our nation’s confidence, accessibility—and even, in hindsight, its soon-to-be-shattered naivety—made me proud. I knew I’d always remember that moment and that feeling.

Obviously, much has changed since then. But I wanted to experience that sort of pride and witness the wondrous sights of Washington from the air again. But this time, instead of simply passing by, I planned to go there in my own airplane, and, hopefully, not get arrested in the process.

Despite all the imposing blue and magenta ink on today’s aeronautical charts depicting the Washington, D.C., Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) and even nastier Flight Restricted Zone (FRZ), it’s still possible for regular pilots to travel into the heart of the world’s most protected airspace.

Potomac Airfield Potomac Airfield

The ADIZ can be crossed VFR or IFR with as little as a preflight phone or radio call and transponder code. The FRZ—the aerial fence encompassing the “DC 3” airports (College Park, Potomac Airfield, and Washington Executive/Hyde Field)—requires pilots to complete a daylong, bureaucratic scavenger hunt that includes fingerprinting and a background check.

AOPA and other aviation proponents have fought hard for years to preserve our ability to fly in the Washington area. But those privileges mean nothing if we don’t use them.

Even though I’m conspicuously bad at navigating bureaucracies and don’t particularly relish the idea of flying in hyper-controlled airspace, I figured this exercise would be worth the trouble.

Game on.

Remarkably cheap fuel

Before moving to Frederick, Md., in January 2008, I regarded Washington flight restrictions as someone else’s problem.

It was simple enough to avoid the big blobs on the chart during my infrequent East Coast trips. We all cringe at the TV images of hapless fliers blundering into prohibited airspace, and no one wants the ignominy that comes from needlessly evacuating Congress and the White House. The only place I want to see F-16s is up close is at an airshow.

Whenever I flew by the Washington, D.C., area, I’d follow the scenic mountains along the west side of the ADIZ, or the majestic Chesapeake Bay on the east.

But why shouldn’t I fly near the capital?

I’m a citizen who tears up at the sound of “America the Beautiful” or “The Star-Spangled Banner”; I haven’t committed any felonies, and unlike a lot of the folks in Washington who make security rules for the rest of us, I’ve actually been to Iraq (as a journalist—not a soldier). My airplane, a Vans RV-3, weighs about 800 pounds empty—half as much as a pint-sized Smart Car, so it’s hardly a threat to national security.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to fly into the FRZ, however, was economic. Avgas there is remarkably cheap.

Potomac sells 100LL at cost for pilots who pay $18 a month to join their club. And at College Park, avgas costs about the same as premium auto gas in the Washington area, and $2 a gallon less than at my home base.

Putting my toe in the water

My quest to enter the FRZ began online with a visit to the Potomac Airfield Web site ( http://potomac-airfield.com ). David J. Wartofsky, the airport’s iconoclastic owner and self-proclaimed “big cheese,” has compiled a treasure trove of information about how to apply to enter and properly fly in the FRZ. His site also pokes fun at the “forces of darkness” that have choked off access to his and other Washington-area airports.

I downloaded the applications (and detailed instructions), notified Wartofsky via e-mail of my intentions, and got busy.

Step One was a visit to Washington Reagan-National Airport.

There, in a basement office under Terminal A, I breezed through the TSA fingerprint process on a Tuesday just before the office closed for lunch. A kindly TSA worker showed me where to get my parking ticket validated, and it was over.

The fingerprinting process was totally computerized, and it didn’t even involve ink. It cost $31, but the folks were friendly, the process was painless, and I figured I’d make up the cost with a couple of fuel purchases.

Step Two took place 90 minutes later at the FAA’s Washington Flight Standards District (FSDO) Office near Dulles International Airport.

It was my first trip to the Washington FSDO, so the location faked me out. It’s inside the Hallmark Building, and since I didn’t come to Washington to buy greeting cards, I circled the parking lot a few times while confirming the address. I eventually found a glass elevator and rode it to the fourth floor for my FAA “interview.”

A highly efficient FAA manager sized me up, asked for my license, medical, and photo identification (a driver’s license or passport will do), then took the papers and disappeared for about 15 minutes. I used the time to take a close look at the office decorations: a wall-sized photo of the space shuttle in flight signed by John Glenn (very cool); a photo of a Marine AV8-B Harrier landing on the mall (also cool), and a signed, framed print of “First Pass, Defenders Over Washington,” a poster depicting an F-16 flying low over the flaming Pentagon on 9/11—which struck me as a bizarre moment for anyone not affiliated with Al Qaeda to commemorate.

I was psyched up to answer the FAA’s questions on everything from my foreign travel (Kuwait, yes; Cuba, no) to VFR cloud-separation requirements. But none of those things came up, and soon I had my papers back and was told to go to Potomac Airfield for the third and final step in the approval process.

So far, the scavenger hunt had taken the better part of a day—and the most time-consuming aspect, by far, was Washington traffic. From the AOPA’s Frederick, Md., headquarters to National, then Dulles, and back had added 145 miles to my car’s odometer and taken about five hours from start to finish.

All that was left was a briefing on ADIZ/FRZ procedures, and I was told I’d get my secret FRZ pin code from Wartofsky. (A detailed explanation of the FRZ rules and application process also is available on AOPA online).

Wartofsky likes to describe FRZ procedures in Alice-in-Wonderland terms: “We use flight plans that aren’t flight plans and air traffic procedures that aren’t air traffic procedures. Why should anyone find that confusing?”

He thoroughly and hilariously explained the procedures and how they came about, and then gave me a pin code and password. I’d need them to file FRZ flight plans by phone with the Washington Hub Flight Service Station.

The official FAA notam is dense with bureaucratic lingo, and it endlessly lists all the aviation activities that are prohibited. I just wanted to know what a private pilot could do and how to do it—and Wartofsky provided a useful, step-by-step chronology.

I kept the pin code and password in my wallet for two days before finally getting up the nerve to cross the line. Then, on a cool, cloudless afternoon, I picked up the phone and called the flight service number. The briefer patiently answered my questions and let me file two flight plans that evening: one going into the FRZ at 6 p.m. and another coming out at 7 p.m.

Instead of flying to Potomac Airfield at the south end of the FRZ, however, I decided to put my toe in the water by going to nearby College Park on the north end. I’d simply head south for 33.6 nm and look for the nontowered strip next to the University of Maryland.

How hard could that be?

Clear of deer

Taking off from Frederick, I turned east and stayed a few miles outside the ADIZ, then called Potomac Approach. The controller assigned a squawk code, confirmed radar contact, and told me to follow my pre-planned route to College Park.

The procedure was just like picking up an IFR clearance—except for the admonishment to “remain clear of the Class B.”

I swallowed hard, turned toward the ADIZ, and watched the miniature airplane on my GPS moving map cross the thick, black boundary while the message light blinked “Special use airspace ahead!” and then “Inside special use airspace!”

The floor of the Class B was 2,500 feet and dropped to just 1,500 feet over College Park. So I descended to 1,400 and sped over the Triadelphia Reservoir and winding Patuxent River. The speed limit inside the FRZ is 180 knots IAS, and the RV-3 was doing about 160 kt.

The evening sky was so clear that I could make out the Baltimore skyline off my left as the Potomac River and Washington landmarks jumped into view straight ahead. The Washington Monument was a soft, golden hue as twilight approached, and closer by, the red brick University of Maryland campus came into sharp relief.

Potomac Approach asked me to advise when I had the airfield in sight, and I made the call at five miles. The controller told me to switch to advisory frequency and reminded me to keep squawking my assigned beacon code all the way to the ground. Switching to VFR/1200 sets off alarms—and it’s an automatic violation inside the ADIZ.

Winds were calm, and the voice on Unicom advised that 2,600-foot Runway 33 was in use and “clear of deer.”

On landing, I saw it wasn’t a joke. Even though College Park is an urban area inside the Washington Beltway, a half-dozen Bambis were grazing near the northern edge of the concrete. I taxied to the fuel pump and shut down.

The lineman, Josh Rountree, a University of Maryland aerospace engineering and Air Force ROTC student, filled the tank and answered my questions. The aviation museum was closed for the day, but the restaurant was highly recommended and open, and the Metro was within easy walking distance.

Rountree said ADIZ and FRZ restrictions have dramatically cut flying activity at the historic airfield, and business is slow, even on beautiful days like this one.

The sun was getting low, and I intended to get back to Frederick before dark, so this was bound to be the moment that I encountered my first FRZ frustration.

No one is allowed to take off within the FRZ, ever, without an assigned squawk code, and the only way to get one is through Potomac Clearance.

I called Potomac Clearance on the phone but got busy signals for 10 minutes. I called another sector, but the controller there said he couldn’t assign a code at my location. I called Potomac Approach on the aircraft radio, but they couldn’t hear me from the ground. Finally, I got through on my cell phone to another sector, pleaded my case, and an especially helpful controller gave me a code and departure frequency.

As I taxied for takeoff, Rountree hopped in an airport pickup and made two noisy passes up and down the runway to scare away the deer. “The runway’s clear,” he told me via his hand-held radio. “Come back to College Park soon.”

Runway 33 pointed toward home, and checking in with Potomac Approach, the controller once again repeated the mantra about staying out of Class B.

I’m not sure what the McMansion residents of central Maryland thought of me heading north at flank speed about 1,200 feet agl, but they probably were unfazed. After all the F-16s and Blackhawks they’ve seen prowling overhead in recent years, it must take a lot more than my RV to impress them.

As soon as I cleared the ADIZ boundary, I said goodbye to Potomac Approach, squawked 1200 again and drifted back to Frederick.

Too valuable to give up

Flying into the FRZ for the first time, I was impressed that the system now in place is workable for GA pilots like me.

The application process isn’t too onerous, and the people I encountered during the process were surprisingly friendly and cooperative. I had expected more bureaucratic friction and suspicion than I encountered.

At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if all the regulations and bureaucratic hoops to jump through actually improve security. It defies logic that bona fide terrorists would be dissuaded from their murderous pursuits by the threat of an FAA violation. I don’t know who performs the background checks or what kind of personal information they gain. But I suppose my credit-card company, Internet provider, and Google know a lot more about my background and personal habits than the keepers of the FRZ.

Still, I feel privileged to fly in such a sensitive area, and I’ll be less intimidated at the prospect of doing so in the future.

I had hoped to feel that surge of patriotic pride that I remembered from 2001 when viewing Washington from the air. But that feeling was tempered by some of the things that have been lost. I miss our country’s former self-absorbed innocence and optimism. I’ve been witness to some of the sacrifices our frontline soldiers and their families make, and I regret that such heavy national burdens fall so disproportionately on so few.

I’m troubled by the obvious economic hardships the DC 3 airports face, and I wonder if the ADIZ and FRZ barriers are simply too great for these treasured airports and related businesses to survive and prosper.

I asked a fellow Washington-area GA pilot—a former Navy flight officer accustomed to highly restricted airspace—why he avoids the ADIZ. He compared flying there to driving with a state trooper filling your rear-view mirror. You like to think you’re careful and obey the rules. But driving that way just isn’t fun, and GA flying is supposed to be fun.

He’s got a point.

But I plan to patronize the DC 3 frequently—despite the uncertainties.

The fact those airports still exist is a tribute to the persistence and resourcefulness of their patrons and the broader aviation community. And our ability to fly our own aircraft to our nation’s capital is too valuable, both practically and symbolically, to give up.