Never Again

Talk to somebody

June 1, 2004

The last time I had a fighter on my wing was during the Cold War, and I was the leader of a two-ship formation. As a pilot with the 146th Fighter Squadron assigned to the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) I was combat-qualified in the F-102, a single-seat delta-wing supersonic fighter-interceptor, and most of our missions involved practice intercepts designed to keep us sharp in the face of the constant threat of Soviet bombers.

Thus my first reaction on a flight last year when I looked off the left wing of my rented Piper Arrow and saw an F-16 doing slow flight a few feet from my wing tip was, "Wow, this really brings back memories!"

After about 10 seconds my enthusiasm dissolved into concern. While some of our NORAD practice missions had allowed for canceling IFR and then freelancing on the return to base, sometimes allowing me to take a fairly close look at general aviation aircraft, I had never just pulled up on a pilot's wing. But from the cockpit of my Arrow, I could see the F-16 pilot's eyes above his oxygen mask — he had the dark-green sun visor on his crash helmet pushed up and was looking at me with particular intensity.

My concern deepened as I remembered where I was. En route home to Charlottesville, Virginia, from a business trip to Morristown, New Jersey, I had filed a VFR flight plan and had departed the Morristown area squawking 1200 without asking for flight following. After activating the flight plan with the Millville Flight Service Station in New Jersey, and enjoying good visibility and high broken ceilings, I had come south through Delaware and Maryland, where the weather improved to "clear and a million." Knowing that I needed to avoid the Patuxent River Naval Air Station restricted airspace in Maryland, I had calculated a turn to the southwest that would keep me to the north of Patuxent and south of the Washington, D.C., Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), which was also obviously off limits unless I wanted to get on the radio and ask for a clearance. I had made my turn to the southwest, staying at 2,500 feet and making a correction for a northwesterly wind, intending to thread through unrestricted airspace toward the Brooke VOR at Fredericksburg, Virginia.

OK, so what was the F-16 doing on my wing? I took another look at the current L-22 low altitude chart on which I had plotted my course and saw nothing wrong. In that 30 seconds or so, the F-16 had lit the burners, accelerated ahead of me, and climbed up into an attack position about 2,000 feet above me and in my windshield at about one o'clock high. It was a very impressive and menacing maneuver, and I was aware that he had positioned himself between the Washington metropolitan area and me.

By now I had a feeling that I had done something wrong. Because I wasn't talking to anyone, I couldn't verify anything. Not wanting to be vaporized by a state-of-the-art air-to-air missile, I concentrated on staying on my flight plan route to Charlottesville; any turn to the north toward Washington would seem hostile and could prove to be fatal.

Wanting to talk to someone and make it known that I had no hostile intentions, I went to 121.5 MHz. My hope was that either air traffic control or the F-16 pilot would be monitoring the frequency and I could talk to them. Receiving no reply to a couple of attempts, I switched to Potomac Approach and was relieved to hear a friendly voice.

I told him I was northwest of Patuxent, east of the Brooke VOR on a VFR flight plan. "I've got an F-16 on my wing, as if I may have violated some restricted airspace." A few seconds later the controller came back with a transponder code for me. Then: "One-One-Romeo, radar contact 14 miles east of Brooke. Proceed direct Charlottesville. When you get on the ground, call this number. Ready to copy?"

My heart sank. I was hearing rather authoritative confirmation that I had busted either the Washington ADIZ or one of the restricted areas just south of my course. I wrote down the phone number, but I still couldn't figure out where I had gone wrong.

The remaining 20-minute leg of the flight was uneventful. As I was taxiing to the ramp, Tower told me they wanted me to give them a phone call. After I tied the Arrow down, the phone at the FBO desk rang and the woman behind the counter said it was for me.

A man on the other end of the line identified himself as being with some national security agency and began asking me a series of questions. What is your full name? What is the number on your pilot certificate? What was your business in Morristown? Are you the owner of the airplane? The man was very efficient and yet pleasant. He advised me that I had penetrated the Washington ADIZ without a clearance.

Although this news did not surprise me after my encounter with the F-16, I felt a sudden shame and embarrassment. Trained by the U.S. Air Force and with 35 years of flying as an instrument-rated, multiengine pilot without a violation or incident, I felt just awful thinking that I had miscalculated.

At home, I spread out the L-22 chart before me on our kitchen table. Tracing my course from my turn from north of Patuxent to the southwest toward the Brooke VOR, I realized my error: I had mistaken the blue-shaded Class B airspace boundary for the ADIZ boundary! The ADIZ boundary extended beyond the Class B airspace boundary, leaving only a slim corridor through which I could have legally passed. Thinking that the corridor was roughly 12 miles wide, I had cut through the extreme southeastern perimeter of the ADIZ, penetrating it by as much as eight miles!

At least I had figured out what I had done wrong. Then there was a very loud knock at our front door.

"Mr. Heiskell?" the man in casual attire asked. He thrust his left hand forward with an open wallet in which his FBI identification could clearly be seen. He introduced himself, and asked, "You know why I'm here, don't you?"

He was respectful and reasonable and, despite my training as a lawyer and prosecutor, I saw nothing to be gained by standing on formalities or objecting to the interrogation. The agent simply wanted to know where I'd been and what I'd been doing on my trip to Morristown and how I could explain my incursion into the ADIZ. After a very few minutes, the questioning gave way to a friendly discussion and, barely 20 minutes after his arrival, he got up from the table.

The letter from the FAA requesting my explanation for the incursion arrived a couple of months later. I responded at once with all the facts. Two months later I received a final letter concluding "the matter does not warrant legal enforcement action.... We are issuing this letter, which will be made a matter of record for two years, after which the record of this matter will be expunged."

I view this incident as a real splash of ice-cold water in the face. Listen to the briefers when they talk about notams and changes in boundaries of restricted areas and national security areas; understand the symbols on the charts and pay attention to them; avoid overconfidence and complacency; and — clearly of highest importance in my particular situation — talk to somebody.


Edgar F. ("Hike") Heiskell III, AOPA 893179, is a pilot, lawyer, and writer living in Charlottesville, Virginia.


Zone of Confusion

AOPA was founded with the primary mission to advocate for pilot interests on the local, state, and national levels. A prime example of this advocacy in action lies in AOPA's efforts to educate pilots about, mitigate the effects of, and reduce (and at some point eliminate) the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) that has surrounded the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area for more than a year.

Educate. AOPA produces a page on AOPA Online ( www.aopa.org/whatsnew/tfr_resources.html) dedicated to notams and temporary flight restriction (TFR) information, which includes the latest updates on the ADIZ and flight restricted zone (FRZ) surrounding Washington, D.C. Pilots can access a section of frequently asked questions about the ADIZ and obtain clarification on how to operate safely and legally within and around the ADIZ through a dedicated program online. The AOPA Air Safety Foundation has also produced an online course, "Know Before You Go," which details airspace regulations.

Mitigate. From the time the ADIZ was implemented, AOPA has used its relationship with FAA officials to tell that agency and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) how the ADIZ affects general aviation pilots. Also, AOPA makes ongoing recommendations about how ADIZ procedures can be made more pilot- and controller-friendly. One example of how this process has worked is with procedures implemented for fringe airports within the ADIZ, including Bay Bridge and Kentmorr airports in Maryland. AOPA constantly seeks additional relief to airports on the outskirts of the ADIZ, as well as those within.

Reduce. AOPA is working to reduce or eliminate the ADIZ and has reached several milestones toward that goal. In March, AOPA participated in a congressional aviation subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill. AOPA pushed for a now congressionally mandated report detailing how ADIZ operations might improve. And representatives from AOPA meet on a regular basis with TSA, Department of Homeland Security, and White House officials to discuss problems and recommend solutions. — AOPA Pilot Staff


"Never Again" is presented to enhance safety by providing a forum for pilots to learn from the experiences of others. Manuscripts should be typewritten, double-spaced, and sent to: Editor, AOPA Pilot, 421 Aviation Way, Frederick, Maryland 21701; or sent via e-mail to neveragain@aopa.org.


An original "Never Again" story is published each month on AOPA Online ( www.aopa.org/pilot/never_again/), and you can see an index of "Never Again" articles published in AOPA Pilot ( www.aopa.org/members/files/pilot/idxna.html).