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AOPA evaluates NORAD's visual warning system in live flight demoAOPA evaluates NORAD's visual warning system in live flight demo

AOPA evaluates NORAD's visual warning system in live flight demo

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After expressing safety concerns and pressing for an opportunity to preview a new laser warning system intended to alert pilots who stray into the Washington Metropolitan Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) or too close to the flight-restricted zone inside it, AOPA staff members on Wednesday had a chance to see the system in action during an in-flight demonstration.

Their conclusion? The unique red-red-green light sequence of the Visual Warning System (VWS) was bright enough to be seen, but not so bright as to be blinding or excessively distracting, even inside the cockpit of a small general aviation aircraft.

"With implementation of the VWS and other security measures, like missile installations and improved surveillance, it's time to review the restrictions imposed on general aviation operations around Washington and make some improvements," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "The Washington ADIZ is slowly strangling general aviation even though there's plenty of evidence to show that small GA aircraft are not a threat."

The VWS is set to be operational in the next 30 to 45 days, but there's still work to be done to ensure its effectiveness. (See the FAA's notice to airmen.)

"The VWS will definitely get a pilot's attention, but understanding what it means is the challenge that security officials need to address," said Andy Cebula, AOPA senior vice president of government and technical affairs. "It could be a useful tool in preventing unintentional violations of the restricted airspace, but security officials and the FAA must educate pilots on what it means and how to react. As always, AOPA is committed to helping with that effort."

The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) developed the ground-based laser system, which sends out low-intensity beams of red and green light to warn pilots that they are flying without permission in designated airspace. It's designed to alert pilots who violate the ADIZ and can't be reached by radio. The lasers will only be used when the military personnel operating them can visually identify the intended aircraft.

Pilots who are "illuminated" by this system are violating restricted airspace and should immediately turn around, fly away from the laser, and contact air traffic control. Failure to do so could result in use of force by the military.

The VWS consists of at least seven turrets, each housing a red and a green laser, placed around the Capital region. The 1.5-watt lasers are diffused through lenses to produce wide, low-intensity beams covering an area roughly 100-feet in diameter 10 nautical miles from the turret. The lasers are visible at distances up to 20 nm. Each turret is connected to a command center and will be operated by military personnel.

April 14, 2005

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