Now, with the proliferation of uncharted and unanticipated temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) -- some stemming from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and others "popping up" with more frequency because of this year's presidential election campaign travel -- you must check notams as often as feasible, including immediately before takeoff and en route, too. Note that I have used the word feasible to impress upon you that the FAA expects pilots to take advantage of all reasonable opportunities to learn of notams that may affect a flight. The applicable federal aviation regulation uses the word available to impress upon you the basic legal obligation to learn of information that the FAA disseminates before you take the flight.
FAR 91.103, Preflight Action, begins by stating, "Each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with all available information concerning that flight." The regulation identifies specific information that you must check before departing. But it does not specifically mention many of the things that we routinely check before beginning a flight, and it does not specifically direct that a pilot check notams.
In the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), which is not a regulatory document, the FAA states, "Notam information is that aeronautical information that could affect a pilot's decision to make a flight." In the section of the AIM that discusses preflight action, the FAA advises that a pilot remind and prompt a preflight briefer to provide all pertinent information. The FAA maintains that checking notams has become an expected preflight action that is required by FAR 91.103. And, in some cases, in addition to checking notams before you take off on the first leg of the flight, the FAA may expect that you check notams as you are en route to your final destination, either at an intermediate stop or while in the air. If you fail to meet this regulatory obligation, the FAA could suspend your pilot certificate for 30 to 90 days. In the current aviation environment, then, it is best to check notams whenever you get the chance and as close in time to your flight as practical, and you should try to keep a record of checks that you made.
So, where is this information "available"? Certainly, an FAA flight service station (FSS) should have this information, since they are part of the FAA and the FAA is the entity restricting the airspace. Unfortunately, not all FSSs advise of notams at distant locations. So, for example, if you depart Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in the morning, en route to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the South Florida briefer may not advise you of a TFR that has "popped up" near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, because of a presidential visit. In that case, you'll want to specifically ask the briefer about notams along your route of flight, and you'll want to check for notams as your flight progresses. Notam information also is available on the FAA's Web site, through the Direct User Access Terminal system (or www.duats.com), and AOPA's Real-Time Flight Planner.
It appears that the FAA will continue to issue TFRs. As pilots, we must have greater awareness that TFRs exist and take appropriate action to discover them. Otherwise, we may find that we've intruded into a TFR only when an Air Force F-15 or helicopter appears off our wing with an unmistakable instruction to land immediately.
Kathy Yodice is an attorney with Yodice Associates in Washington, D.C., which provides legal counsel to AOPA and administers AOPA's legal services plan. She is an instrument-rated private pilot.