Pilot Counsel:

The DC SFRA

February 1, 2009

John S. Yodice has served as legal counsel to AOPA since 1963.

The world has changed since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on this country by hijacked airliners. The change has certainly been obvious to general aviation pilots. Immediately after the attacks, the FAA shut down all civil aircraft operations in the National Airspace System, and then replaced the ban with a proliferation of flight restrictions around the country that have been issued through the notam system. Security notams establishing temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) have become all too familiar to pilots.

The Washington, D.C., area has had even more intense flight restrictions. Even before the terrorist attacks, the area had significant restrictions in the form of Class B airspace and several prohibited areas over the White House, the Capitol, and the U.S. Naval Observatory. As flight restrictions in other cities and locales were eased, the FAA continued to impose a series of TFRs in the Washington area. The restrictions ultimately resulted in the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Area Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). The FAA also adopted Special Federal Aviation Regulation No. 94, restricting operations at the so-called “D.C. Three” airports, which has since expired and now contained in this new rule and in a regulation promulgated by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

The Washington ADIZ came into being in February 2003, with the FAA imposing flight restrictions in an outer area, which closely mirrored the Washington Class B airspace, and required identification and control of all flight operations within the airspace. An inner area inside the ADIZ, called a Flight Restricted Zone (FRZ), is approximately a 15-nm radius around the DCA VOR/DME (Reagan Washington National Airport) where stringent access procedures apply, barring most GA aircraft.

The FAA has now determined that the Washington ADIZ should be made permanent. This new rule, contained in FAR Part 93, establishes and defines the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Area Special Flight Rules Area (DC SFRA) and FRZ. The DC SFRA is a 30-mile radius around the DCA VOR/DME, comprising almost 3,000 square miles, surface to Flight Level 180. The FAA depicts the DC SFRA dimensions and communications frequencies on VFR charts.

The rule specifies the general requirements for operating in the DC SFRA, and allows special treatment for the “D.C. Three,” certain “fringe airports,” and for traffic pattern work. All aircraft in the SFRA are strictly controlled and identifiable in one form or another. The general requirements are: 1) the aircraft must be equipped with two-way radio and, before operating in the SFRA, the pilot must establish and then maintain communications with the appropriate air traffic control facility; 2) the aircraft must be equipped with an operating automatic altitude reporting transponder and, before operating in the SFRA, the pilot must obtain from air traffic control and transmit a discrete transponder code; 3) for VFR operations the pilot must file and activate a DC FRZ or DC SFRA flight plan (automatic for IFR operations). These requirements are in addition to the usual procedures that apply in Class B and D airspace.

There is some relaxation of the requirements for aircraft operating in the VFR traffic pattern of an airport in the SFRA, but not within the FRZ. If there is no airport traffic control tower, the pilot must file a “DC SFRA flight plan for traffic pattern work,” obtain and transmit an assigned discrete transponder code, communicate traffic pattern position on the CTAF, and monitor VHF frequency 121.5 if able. If the airport has a control tower, the pilot must stay in radio communication with the tower, request to remain in the traffic pattern, monitor VHF frequency 121.5 if able, and squawk code 1234 unless assigned a different code.

There are special requirements for operating at the “D.C. Three”—College Park Airport, Potomac Airfield, and Washington Executive/Hyde Field. The TSA imposes extensive ground security requirements and procedures under 49 CFR Part 1562, and this FAA rule requires a pilot, before departing, to file an IFR or DC FRZ or DC SFRA flight plan with the Washington hub FSS identifying him/herself with the TSA-assigned pilot identification code, and, if operating VFR, the pilot must comply with the applicable ingress/egress procedures.

There are “fringe airports” located just inside the boundary of the SFRA where special departure procedures allow for some relaxation of the general requirements. They are: Barnes, Flying M Farms, Mountain Road, Robinson, and Skyview. A pilot may depart from a fringe airport without filing a flight plan or communicating with ATC so long as the aircraft’s transponder transmits code 1205, the pilot monitors VHF frequency 121.5, and the pilot exits the DC SFRA by the most direct route. The general requirements (for a flight plan and communications) are not relaxed for aircraft arriving to a fringe airport.

Under all of the procedures, the code 1200 is never used in the DC SFRA. Some pilots, when cancelling IFR and cleared to change frequency, will automatically squawk code 1200. That’s a violation. The FAA has adopted a related rule requiring that any pilot flying under VFR within a 60-mile radius of the DCA VOR/DME must complete online training provided by the FAA, and retain a completion certificate. The FAA has imposed fairly high speed restrictions by notam. “Knowingly or willfully” violating the SFRA, in addition to being subject to FAA enforcement, is subject to criminal prosecution.

John S. Yodice