AOPA President Phil Boyer has complained to Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge about the "last minute" temporary flight restriction that effectively closed nine Washington-area airports during the President's State of the Union address January 29.
"As a citizen of the United States during these troubled times, I am very concerned about whether I am 'secure in the homeland' with decisions like those made yesterday," Boyer wrote Ridge the day following the speech. "I do not question the imposition of flight restrictions, but the manner in which the government acted."
At 4:45 p.m. on January 29, the FAA issued a notice to airman (notam) banning all VFR flight within 25 nautical miles of Washington, D.C. during the President's speech that evening.
"It is troubling that a vital homeland security decision about an event scheduled months in advance was made at not just the proverbial 'eleventh hour,' but operationally beyond any reasonable time pilots would expect such notification," Boyer said.
Boyer also told Ridge that the FAA's antiquated notam system is not effective in quickly communicating necessary information to pilots. "The FAA relies on a notam system that is descended from 1940s teletype technology," Boyer said. Because of that, AOPA took action by immediately publishing advance word of the action on the association's Web site and sending an e-mail to pilots living within 250 miles of Washington.
Even so, there was the very real risk that some pilots would not get the word.
"The day of the speech was perfect for VFR flight," Boyer said. "So, take the case of a pilot who would have completed a thorough briefing and checked all the notams and departed from one of the affected airports at 4:30 p.m. with the intention of returning home just a few hours later.
"This scenario could have had disastrous consequences for the innocent pilot who would have unknowingly flown into restricted airspace and faced the possibility of interception by military fighters with authority to shoot him out of the sky," said Boyer.
Boyer also noted last-minute changes to airspace restrictions surrounding the Winter Olympics Games in Salt Lake City. Those changes severely limit use of an airport that had been outside the security area. The FAA had even advised pilots to relocate their aircraft to that airport so they could remain clear of restricted airspace.
"We are living through the ongoing security action by the government surrounding events such as the Super Bowl and the World Economic Forum in New York," Boyer said. "While President Bush has expressed a hope that life would return to normal, I can tell you America's pilots have certainly not seen a return to normalcy."
Boyer said that pilots and AOPA remain committed to the safe and secure operation of general aviation aircraft. He noted that AOPA has met with Homeland Security staff on several occasions to support reasonable and effective security efforts.
"AOPA and two other industry organizations spent significant time and resources to give the government a series of recommendations on general aviation security," Boyer told Ridge. "Many of our recommendations have been adopted. AOPA's actions underscore our desire to help."
Boyer concluded, "Aviation is on the frontline in the domestic war on terrorism. I can assure you America's general aviation pilots want to play a role in supporting this effort, but not with last-minute government decisions that could have been anticipated."
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is the world's largest civil aviation organization. Some 60 percent of the nation's pilots are AOPA members, as are three quarters of the nation's general aviation aircraft owners.