AOPA urges changes to UAS-only airspace proposal

February 9, 2012

AOPA submitted several suggestions that would mitigate the impact of a proposed restricted airspace reserved for unmanned aircraft in North Dakota, but remains opposed to the creation of such an exclusive airspace.

Implementation of the proposed restricted areas would create a disturbing precedent, carving out a slice of the finite National Airspace System for the operation of aircraft unable to “see and avoid” other traffic.

The U.S. Air Force has for years sought to create a restricted airspace in northern North Dakota reserved for training flights by unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), and AOPA Vice President of Air Traffic Services and Modernization Heidi Williams noted in formal comments—submitted Feb. 7 in response to the notice of proposed rulemaking—that this final proposal reflects an effort by the Air Force to mitigate negative impacts. That effort is appreciated, and AOPA understands the need to train Air Force pilots in realistic conditions. However, many problems impacting safety and airspace use remain to be addressed.

Most troubling, the restricted airspace would be the first ever reserved exclusively for UAS activity, the start of a “slippery slope” that could lead to similar proposals elsewhere. AOPA has repeatedly noted that while UAS are unable to comply with the “see and avoid” requirements of Part 91, there are solutions other than segregation, including the use of ground observers and chase airplanes, that could maintain safety and allow the Air Force to complete its missions. The proposed rule gives no indication how UAS flights would transit safely to and from the Grand Forks Air Force Base, where they would be launched and recovered.

AOPA also noted potential impacts on general aviation, commercial aviation, and critical air service use of the airspace: The restricted airspaces would render Victor 170, a critical navigation route connecting Devils Lake Regional Airport and Jamestown Regional Airport, unusable during the majority of each day. In addition, Victor 55—the only low-altitude route connecting Bismarck Municipal Airport and Grand Forks International Airport—would be effectively closed, adding a minimum of 60 additional miles of off-airway travel, and significantly increasing fuel costs.

AOPA urged the FAA, if the rule is adopted, to consider increasing the advance notice given to pilots when the military operations areas will be utilized. Pilots operating under VFR often avoid such airspace entirely due to a lack of real-time information about airspace activity. The Air Force has proposed four hours advance notice; AOPA has urged the FAA to require six hours advance notice.

Williams, in the Feb. 7 comments, also suggested creating a “sunset” date for the restricted airspace complex, along with public dissemination of usage data already being collected, and opportunities for pilots to comment during a renewal.

“All too often we see restricted or segregated airspace established which remains in existence far beyond its actual use,” Williams wrote. “While establishing a sunset date may not be optimal, it is critical to ensuring all agencies and users remain accountable and that our airspace structure evolves as new technology and adequate mitigations for ‘see and avoid’ become available.”

AOPA will continue to work with local pilots, the state, the FAA, and the Air Force, and urges members to submit comments on the proposed rule by the Feb. 12 deadline.

Members are encouraged to review the NPRM and submit comments on or before Feb. 12, to the FAA by email, referring to FAA Docket No. FAA-2011-0117 and Airspace Docket No. 09 (refer to AGL-31). Members are asked to share a copy of comments with AOPA.

Jim Moore

Jim Moore | Online Associate Editor, AOPA

AOPA Online Associate Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot who enjoys competition aerobatics.