ALL IFR AND VFR GENERAL AVIATION FLIGHTS ARE PROHIBITED WITHIN THE NATIONAL AIRSPACE SYSTEM UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. Never did I think I would see a notam like this. I had spoken Thursday morning with both the secretary of Transportation and the FAA administrator. As the ultimate optimist, I could only continue to hope that their promise of reopening the National Airspace System to full access by general aviation would be real.
Yes, we are in the early recovery phases of a major national crisis. But the communication failure within the FAA itself and other government agencies has produced an aviation crisis in its own right. Throughout the morning, the news media touted an FAA notam that indicated airspace would be opened to all aviation users at 1500Z. AOPA verified this, downloaded a copy from DUATS, and placed it on our Web site.
Within minutes, I received a call from a high-level FAA manager indicating the subject of GA was still under review. Reluctantly, and with great disappointment, we changed our Web posting to warn pilots that they might not be able to fly at 1500Z. However, pilots who did obtain a legal briefing got that notam, filed flight plans, and, in some cases, even departed at what they thought was a legal hour. But, in fact, they unknowingly violated a new 1457Z notam prohibiting all GA flights. The horror stories then began to unfold. Flight crews had told their corporate chiefs they could depart at 11 a.m. ET. So they taxied out and then were turned around by the tower.
Some flights did get into the air, but don't count them lucky. F-16s intercepted not only corporate aircraft, but also a Texas student and flight instructor. All were forced to return to home base and land.
When we first became aware of the possibility this could happen, AOPA's senior vice president of government and technical affairs, Andy Cebula, called the head of FAA Flight Standards and obtained his pledge that no one caught in this mixed-up notam mess would be subject to an enforcement action.
"Chaos" is the best way to describe the FAA environment that your association is working in. Flight service stations are offering conflicting information to pilots, sometimes contradicting information issued from FAA headquarters.
It appears that users are being allowed back into the airspace system segment by segment. Late Thursday afternoon, it was Part 135 flights, better known as charter flights to you and me. But that decision may be reversed.
Later Thursday, Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta and I spoke again. In a lengthy phone conversation, he told me about the continuing debate among the president's national security team. The nation still faces serious security threats. The Capitol building was evacuated because of a suspicious package. Many airports have received bomb threats. And the three major New York airports were closed shortly after they reopened, as federal authorities detained more suspects, including one reportedly carrying false pilot credentials.
Nevertheless, Mineta convinced a meeting of the president's National Security Council (which included Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller) to at least consider allowing IFR general aviation operations soon.
"But Mr. Secretary, I'm most concerned about the return of basic VFR privileges," I said. "And this type of flying presents no security threat to the nation."
Secretary Mineta agreed, and we spent 45 minutes discussing general aviation and the continued security threat. But he told me that the National Security Council perceives VFR flight as uncontrolled, and therefore a greater threat somehow. It became very obvious to me that the secretary of Transportation tried his best to change that perception. He had the right arguments, he made the correct points, and he was much more eloquent than any one of us. In some cases, he even called on his primary flight training background to make points we wanted heard.
And then late Thursday evening, AOPA learned that, because of the continuing threats, the approval for Part 135 operations might be rescinded.
The bottom line is that decision makers outside of the FAA and the Department of Transportation believe the nation still faces a heightened security risk and that general aviation might be used to attack the nation. While we all know that is pretty far-fetched, the mood at the moment is to not take any risks, no matter how unlikely they might be.
AOPA is continuing to push on all fronts to get general aviation back in the air. But let me manage your expectations. When the security threats lessen, first will come the approval for Part 91 IFR flying. Then, no sooner than 48 hours later, should come the restoration of VFR privileges.
This is sure one of those weeks when I wish that I could swap jobs with one of you. To make matters worse, the weather is severe clear for much of the country—a perfect time to fly.
However, for the moment, the freedom of flight has been taken away.