Altair/Predator B (courtesy of NASA)
Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.) used his full allotted committee time last week to make sure government officials were responding to general aviation's concerns about unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), particularly those patrolling the southern U.S. border.
Berry had been well briefed by AOPA's Legislative Affairs staff prior to last week's hearing before the homeland security subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. And so when it came his turn to question homeland security and customs officials, he drilled them about UAV operations.
"Who owns the airspace?" Berry asked. The FAA and the Department of Defense, was the answer, and the two agencies are working together to coordinate operations.
The only issue was at what altitude the UAVs should operate. The discussions varied, and possible altitudes of operation ranged from 14,000 feet to 17,000 feet.
"How will that impact general aviation?" the congressman asked.
"There is some impact to general aviation," acknowledged the director of the Secure Border Initiative at the Department of Homeland Security, Gregory Giddens, "because we're creating a temporary flight restriction zone. The FAA had to work with GA and see what those impacts were."
So Berry demanded to know if GA had "been at the table for any of these discussions." Giddens had to admit that general aviation representatives weren't at any of the meetings he was at, but that the FAA "had reached out" and was "interfacing" with GA.
Berry said he didn't think his question had been completely answered, and then asked if the TFRs were going to be expanded and made permanent. Giddens said there was a "potential" for expanding the TFR, but he didn't see it becoming permanent.
Noting that they were working with the Defense Department to improve UAV sensor capability, he said, "If we can get [the UAV] to 18,000 feet or above and still get the operational capability that Customs and Border Patrol needs, then that will alleviate a lot of the general aviation concerns."
"This kind of congressional scrutiny is very important," said Andy Cebula, AOPA executive vice president of government affairs. "If federal officials know they're being closely watched by the people who control their budgets, they tend to be very careful about what they do."
April 12, 2006