Waypoints: Coming to terms

Intimidating airspace an annoyance, not a showstopper

November 1, 2013

Thomas B. HainesIt’s a simple Sunday afternoon flight on a very VFR day, and yet I feel anxious and uncertain. The reason: The Washington, D.C., Special Flight Rules Area—pronounced Sifra in FAA parlance; sounds like a venereal disease. And some pilots in the region avoid the area as if it were. For years, I was one of them.

Although I’ve flown general aviation airplanes on four continents, in many countries, and in 46 U.S. states, I’m still intimidated by the SFRA, which starts just a few miles south of my home airport in Frederick, Maryland. And I have flown in this area for 25 years. The restrictive cylinder of airspace went up in February 2003 as a continuing fallout from the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks—attacks where airliners, not GA airplanes, were the weapon of choice. Yet airliners today can fly all the way into Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, deep inside the Flight Restricted Zone—the innermost part of the SFRA; with only a few exceptions, GA cannot.

Requirements to fly inside the SFRA have been modified a few times over the years, as has the size and shape of the airspace, but basically today if you want to fly within 60 nautical miles of Washington you must be able to prove that you have taken an online FAA course. In addition, to actually fly VFR in the SFRA, which encompasses about a 30-nm radius of the capital, you must file a modified VFR flight plan, get a clearance and squawk code, enter and exit through defined gates, and fly in restrictive routes to and from the GA airports inside the area or when transiting the airspace. Three GA airports deep inside the airspace are open only to pilots who are vetted.

The FAA has shown zero tolerance for any deviations inside the airspace, including simply turning your transponder to 1200 before you touch down.

For years, I refused to fly VFR there, instead filing IFR even for flights to nearby airports—which always means long and circuitous routings.

Earlier this year, I decided to stop being afraid and give VFR a go. I retook the FAA course and actually paid attention. I studied the terminal area chart, noted the special frequencies to call for clearance and transponder code before entering the assigned gates, marshalled my courage, and flew to Manassas, Virginia, on the southwest side of the complex. I’m happy to report that I, in my sinister-looking Bonanza with some 45 gallons of avgas on board, did not get shot down—in either direction! I’ve made several similar VFR flights since, but always with a certain trepidation.

The pilots whose airports fall under the SFRA seem to fall into three categories: Those who fly frequently and don’t see the special procedures as a big deal; they wonder why others are intimidated. Those who don’t fly frequently and feel intimidated and want the whole thing to just go away. And those who simply don’t fly any more as a result of the restrictions. I know a couple of airline pilots who will only fly GA airplanes there IFR, if at all, for fear the simplest infraction will cost them a certificate action—which could cost them their careers.

And so it was with that as a backdrop that I on a recent Sunday afternoon studied the charts on my iPad as I prepared to fly my youngest daughter, Jenna, from Frederick to Salisbury, Maryland, where she is a freshman in college. The route was a rather straight line through a corridor under the Baltimore-Washington Class B, but inside the SFRA. Regardless, the use of the airplane was compelling—about a 45-minute flight each way compared with a 3.5-hour drive each way.

Fortunately, the FAA has placed a GPS waypoint at each end of the corridor—VPONX and VPOOP; I kid you not. So the navigation is easy. Stay below 2,500 feet, get the clearance and squawk code from the “special” frequency, and away we go. Off to the southeast, we can see the Washington Monument, Potomac River, and Andrews Air Force Base. The FBO at Salisbury has a courtesy car and minutes after landing, I’m lugging clean laundry up to Jenna’s dorm room. The return trip is as uneventful.

I wish I could tell you I wasn’t anxious about the trip back. Maybe someday. Or maybe someday we’ll convince the security agencies what a waste of resources and interruption of our lives the SFRA is. I’m not optimistic.

Email thomas.haines@aopa.org

Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines | Editor in Chief, AOPA

AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.