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Keeping track of TFRsKeeping track of TFRs

Tips for avoiding temporary flight restrictions

Many temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) are short-term and are scattered across the country. Others, such as these four around Puget Sound near Seattle, Washington, have been around since 2001. AOPA has been lobbying aggressively to shrink or eliminate such "temporary" restrictions.

As you're learning, aviation is full of acronyms, and it can be a challenge to break the code for each of them. But there's one relatively new acronym-TFR, for temporary flight restriction-that you must learn immediately if you want to avoid unpleasant surprises.

Even if you have studied for a new certificate or rating recently, you may not have the latest information, because things in the TFR realm are constantly evolving. There seems to be something new every minute, and it's hard to keep up. A well-thought-out plan can help.

You need to know what a TFR is, how to find when and where TFRs are active, and avoid them while you're flying. If you don't, expect to face a welcoming committee as you're intercepted by military jets or helicopters in the air and then greeted by law-enforcement officials when you land.

For decades, many general aviation pilots looked at Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZs) as outdated aerial constructs at the fringes of the continent-invisible dinosaurs left over from the Cold War. Such airspace existed since before many of today's pilots were born. Many of us don't fly anywhere near an ADIZ, and most of us probably take them for granted.

Today pilots face the Washington Metropolitan Area Air Defense Identification Zone, a relatively new ADIZ that approximates the footprint of the Baltimore-Washington Class B airspace, with an extension to the south. And that's not all.

Ask pilots from the Northeast who inadvertently found out about it when they were flying down to Florida for a week of innocent fun in the sun!

The times are changing

It's no longer enough for us to look at the chart, pick out the prohibited and restricted areas, and avoid them. Airspace modifications arising from the increased security environment following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, are now commonplace. Heightened airspace awareness during flight planning, accurate navigation, and precise piloting has assumed increased importance.

The current environment

Would it surprise you to learn that the Washington ADIZ has been violated more than 1,000 times since its inception less than two years ago-or that since September 11, 2001, North American Air Defense Command fighters have either been scrambled from ground alert or diverted from airborne patrol over major cities to intercept and/or identify "unknown" aircraft in the United States on more than 1,600 occasions?

Since September 11 the Washington ADIZ and numerous other "don't fly here" TFRs have sprung up at a moment's notice.

Most TFRs aren't depicted on sectional charts. Many go away as suddenly as they appear, but others don't. Some areas have been "temporary" flight restrictions for more than two years. Some TFRs double or triple in size seemingly at the drop of a hat, and the only notification to pilots is a notice to airmen (notam). Who would know about a TFR without checking the appropriate notam?

Consider Prohibited Area P-49, which surrounds President Bush's ranch near Crawford, Texas. Nearly 140 violations of the airspace around P-49 were documented in 2003. It's normally a circle with a three-nautical-mile radius that extends up to 5,000 feet above mean sea level. But at times, a notam will increase the radius to 30 nm and the top to 18,000 feet. The only aircraft allowed within 10 miles required preapproval by the U.S. Secret Service and were restricted to law enforcement and military directly supporting the Secret Service and the White House. When the airspace is expanded, any aircraft operating between 10 and 30 miles from the TFR's center is required to be on a VFR or IFR flight plan, squawk an assigned discrete transponder code, and maintain two-way radio contact. Training, practice approaches, and many other activities are prohibited.

The FAA investigates each TFR violation. Depending on individual circumstances, action resulting from TFR violations normally ranges from letters of warning to certificate suspension. The standard certificate action for inadvertent P-49 violations is a 60-day suspension of the airman certificate. "Violators are normally forced down by [the] military and dealt with on the ground by Secret Service agents," an FAA spokesperson said. Actual certificate action numbers are unavailable.

Let's look at another case in point: P-40 (over the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland, it is the airspace below Restricted Area R-4009). P-40 normally extends from the surface to 5,000 feet msl and has a three-nautical-mile radius. It is clearly marked on the Washington sectional aeronautical chart. There were 83 documented violations of the airspace over Camp David during the first 11 months of 2003.

By issuance of a notam, the radius of this area expands from three miles to a five-mile no-fly zone, and its ceiling extends up to 18,000. Operations between five and 10 miles require a VFR or IFR flight plan, assigned trans-ponder code, and communication with ATC. Other restric-tions take effect when the airspace expands.

Add to these the many other uncharted TFRs around stadiums seating 30,000 or more people when major sporting events are taking place. Add major airshows, natural disaster areas-the list goes on.

Flying within three nautical miles of college football games is prohibited below 3,000 feet agl! Some airshow restrictions go up to 15,000 feet agl and out to five nautical miles. Major space launch restrictions go from the ground to "unlimited" and encompass a 30-nm radius.

How are we supposed to know?

How are we supposed to know all this? For years, areas to avoid, or in which to be especially vigilant, have been clearly depicted on aeronautical charts. These include prohibited areas, restricted areas, warning areas, and various kinds of other "rules controlled" airspace.

Flying in today's environment requires a return to flight planning and piloting basics that too many of us have forgotten. Notwithstanding their currency or utility, the best GPS moving map made today will not depict the TFR that was just activated along your flight path last night or this morning. The pilot must learn about this through good flight planning and staying current. It's all out there if you just know where and how to look.

TFRs are explained in the Aeronautical Informational Manual (Section 3-5-3) and in various parts of the federal aviation regulations. AOPA members can download the pertinent sections from the members-only section of AOPA Online.

But before you focus on TFRs, make sure you're up on the basics of airspace (controlled, uncontrolled, special use, and "other"). A free AOPA Air Safety Foundation online course, Know Before You Go, provides an excellent review.

When you stop to think about it, a pilot's ability to break the code on things like this is really what flying is all about. Knowing the rules-what you can and can't do-is comforting and promotes confidence. So study the rules so you can break the code in today's atmosphere of increased security, changing restrictions, pop-up en route notams, and TFRs.

Uncertainty-simply not knowing-breeds indecision, doubt, apprehension, and fear. There's no place for any of that in the cockpit. So let's get rid of the uncertainty about TFRs by asking a few simple questions.

What is a TFR?

Notams are formal notices that something has come up that could affect flight, but it's usually not contained in more formally published documents current at the time. Notams remain active until the particular item being highlighted is published more permanently in resources such as aeronautical charts or the Airport/Facility Directory, or when the notification expires.

There are three types of notams: local notams, distant notams, and FDC notams.

Local notams usually involve notification items within the geographical boundaries of one Flight Service Station (FSS) and encompass only its geographical area of responsibility; for example, local construction, taxiway and runway closures, instrument approach modifications, and similar items at local airports.

Distant notams contain those same sorts of information for operations, areas, and airports outside the local FSS's area of responsibility.

FDC (Flight Data Center) notams contain items that must be complied with; they are regulatory in nature and involve major issues: airways that are changed, critical published altitudes and procedures that are revised, modifications to navigation aids, for example. Most TFRs have been FDC notams.

TFRs specify where we can't go, areas we can't overfly, things we can't do, routings we can or can't follow, procedures that we must use, and other specific restrictions. Types of TFRs currently in the system apply to space flight, airshows and sporting events, specific hazards to aircraft, disaster areas (earthquake areas and forest fire suppression operations, for example), security, VIP movements, and other special subjects.

Regardless or the category, duration, and specifications, however, avoiding them is your top priority.

Easier said than done, you might say. Not at all! The only trick-the code-is to know where the TFRs are, how they might affect your route of flight, and what to do to avoid them.

Where and how you can find TFRs

Notams are available from several sources accessible to pilots. Most of them are Internet-related, but the authority for all notams (which include all TFRs) is your local Flight Service Station. The FAA's TFR Web site states the following, "Pilots are reminded that they should not conduct flight in the National Aerospace System without first obtaining a thorough preflight briefing...Flight Service Stations are the official source of notam information and should be contacted at 1-800-WX-BRIEF for the latest information."

TFRs can also be obtained from a number of other sources that receive their information from the FAA.

Regardless of where you obtain your TFR information, you should always check with your local FSS immediately before flight to ensure that you have the latest information.

TFR information is available on the FAA's Web site. It depicts TFRs in two ways, textually and graphically. Graphic TFRs are easily interpreted, for the most part-but you should also read the text of the notam. Some notams establish more than one TFR, and they may have different effective times; in such a case the graphic depiction may not tell the whole story.

There's another tool that will help you to avoid TFRs. AOPA's Real-Time Flight Planner, a free online flight-planning tool available to members, depicts active TFRs over your route of flight. Depending on where you are in your training, your instructor might not want you to use this service to plan your flight-after all, she is required to teach you how to flight-plan on paper-but the Real-Time Flight Planner might be a great way to check for TFRs, as well as validate your manual flight planning, immediately before takeoff (see "Instructor Report: New Twist on Flight Planning," February AOPA Flight Training).

If that's not available, then the last thing to do before you walk out the door is to call Flight Service again at 800/WX-BRIEF. Let the specialist know that you have already obtained the latest weather and filed your flight plan. The only thing you need at this point is assurance that there are no TFRs that have arisen since your last briefing and that none will affect you during your time of flight along your proposed route.

Check at every stop

The first thing you need to do is to plan your flight thoroughly. Even if you're only flying in the local area, carefully check your route and get all the TFRs that could have any impact on your flight. Then plot them on the aeronautical chart on which you have marked or identified your route. Check for conflicts. Replan, delay, re-route or otherwise eliminate the conflicts...before you fly!

Once you take off, expect change. What was current when you took off on the first leg of your cross-country-an hour and a half ago-might no longer be current because a new TFR has been issued. The only way to stay current-to cover yourself for subsequent flight legs-is to call flight service to obtain updated weather, notams, and TFRs for the next leg at every en route stop. On longer flight segments you can check with flight service in the air (it's great radio practice).

What to do if or when you're intercepted is another story (see "What to Do if You're Intercepted," p. 30).

But not to worry. If you follow the procedures in this article, you won't be. Know where you're going, find out if there are any restrictions in your path, and then plan around them, if necessary. Piece of cake!

Breaking the code is easy when you know how.

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