Never Again: Always check for TFRs

June 1, 2008

It was a beautiful summer day with a few cumulus clouds and clear weather forecast for the next fortnight—conditions highly unusual for New England. A warm breeze blew across the tarmac as I rolled my Extra 300L out of the hangar for a cross-country flight out of Bedford, Massachusetts. My planned route took me north to Skyhaven in New Hampshire, and then west to Rutland Municipal Airport in Vermont. I was looking forward to a relaxed day of fun and adventure, discovering unfamiliar regional airports and returning in time for what promised to be a beautiful sunset.

Having briefed my trip the day before and confirmed no changes in the weather forecast, I obtained the ATIS from Hanscom tower and verified that I was squawking 1200 on my transponder. Minutes later I was departing Runway 29 and quickly climbing to 5,500 feet for the 50-plus nautical miles of my first leg. Because the Extra covers ground very fast, I called the Skyhaven unicom for traffic advisories 12 miles out. Given the prevailing winds, I had planned to land on Runway 33. After a short delay, another pilot came on and announced that he was turning base for Runway 15. He added that traffic had been diverted because of the temporary flight restriction, which had gone into effect an hour previously.

My heart skipped a couple of beats. I immediately executed a sharp 90-degree turn to the west in the hope that radar control would see that a certain unidentified aircraft was setting up to enter the pattern at Skyhaven. A cold sweat had rapidly replaced the feeling of euphoria, which had dominated the early stages of my flight. Just after touchdown a rough voice came over my headset asking me to “taxi to the green hangar because Boston is on the line and wants to talk to you.” I was in shock. Images of the feds leading me away in handcuffs filled my mind.

The controller at Logan asked me to confirm that I had just touched down and noted my pilot credentials. He asked me to wait while the Secret Service was dispatched. Seeing the dismay on my face, two of the local mechanics informed me that I was not the first pilot to be caught out by the fact that the president had decided to take a long weekend in Kennebunk, Maine—20 nautical miles away. They recounted stories of previous enforcement actions, and in particular, how one FAA inspector was surprised to observe an AK-47 [assault rifle] leaning against a toolbox. The mechanic had responded that in rural New Hampshire, the militia was well prepared to deal with any terrorists who managed to cross the fence. Both mechanics bemoaned the negative economic impact that “pop-up” TFRs had on airport operations.

A few moments later, two local police cars pulled into the main parking lot. Three young officers sporting Glock .45 pistols made their way to me. The eldest of the three smiled and asked me if I was the “criminal” they had been sent to intercept. They informed me that the Secret Service was busy and had asked them to confirm my details. An hour later I was assigned a discreet squawk code and allowed to depart the airspace. I decided to continue my planned trip westbound to Rutland. Upon returning to Bedford, I noted that the ATIS now included information about the Kennebunk TFR, which had gone into effect earlier in the day.

A few weeks later I received a call from an FAA aviation safety inspector based at the Portland, Maine, flight standards district office. The inspector was extremely courteous on the phone and inquired about the background leading to my unintended trespass into the restricted airspace. He was particularly interested in my preflight briefing. We spent the better part of an hour talking about what I had done and what I might do differently next time. I informed the inspector that, apart from specifically checking to see if a TFR had been announced prior to my flight, I would not have done anything differently.

After I received a notice of proposed certificate action in the mail, I contacted the AOPA legal services team, which provided me with valuable assistance in the ensuing enforcement action. The FAA attorney assigned to my case was also very professional and helpful, acknowledging that this was an unfortunate incident and encouraging me to work with pilot organizations to inform Congress about the impact of TFRs. I received a 15-day suspension of my certificate.

Although unhappy about having been the subject of an enforcement action, I viewed this experience as a positive one. First, I was careless in not checking notams immediately prior to my departure to see if the conditions of my planned route had changed. Politics aside, the privileges of flight impose the burden of ensuring compliance with regulations.

Second, I witnessed first-hand the impact of TFRs on small regional airports—in economic terms the effect is dramatic. I would encourage all pilots looking to cancel a flight because of a “pop-up” TFR to use the opportunity to further refine pilot proficiency. Third, I discovered to my pleasant surprise that the FAA enforcement branch was actually quite interested in making me a better pilot, a lesson that I have taken to heart.

My standard preflight briefing checklist now and forever will include the words: “Always check for TFRs.”

Peter A. Gish is a private pilot, ASEL-AMEL, with more than 400 hours of flight time. He flies aerobatics in his Extra 300L.