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Virginia airspace plan gives glimpse of future policiesVirginia airspace plan gives glimpse of future policies

The FAA has published a final rule approving the expansion of a restricted airspace complex for use by NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility at Chincoteague Inlet, Virginia, in an action that incorporates several actions requested by AOPA to preserve airspace access for general aviation.

Several of the steps taken to mitigate the impact on general aviation reflect work AOPA is doing in cooperation with the FAA to develop general procedures for amending and redesigning airspace. The revised procedures could help pilots assess the impact of planned airspace changes, and avoid compliance problems when they take effect. The new procedures may be unveiled next April.

The Virginia airspace expansion includes three new restricted areas near the NASA Wallops Flight Facility to contain “high risk test profiles for heavily modified test aircraft” and other operations that could not be safely handled in other kinds of special-use airspace, the FAA said in its final rule.

The steps AOPA proposed to mitigate the impact and the FAA adopted were based on a large volume of member feedback. They included the charting of new VFR waypoints for use by GA pilots navigating the airspace; adding restricted area boundaries to charted instrument approach procedures; and activating the restricted airspace with at least 12 hours advance notice via notices to airmen, said Rune Duke, AOPA director of airspace and air traffic.

The FAA also agreed with an AOPA request that the restricted airspace not be used until the boundaries and times of use are published on VFR navigation charts.

“The FAA agreed that this is an important consideration that improves the safety of participating and non-participating aircraft,” Duke said.

As for the expected update to FAA Order 7400.2K, Procedures for Handling Airspace Matters, the revision will be the document’s first significant modernization since 2004.

New provisions should make it easier for pilots to analyze and comment on airspace proposals—and later, comply with final provisions, Duke said.

One improvement to be implemented would emphasize that all applications made to the FAA for a rulemaking action that could result in airspace changes should include a graphic that would then become part of the docket available for public inspection online. Currently, graphics only appear in airspace dockets “on an irregular basis,” AOPA pointed out in an October 2015 letter to the FAA.

As has now been adopted for the Wallops Flight Facility airspace action, changes or additions to Class D airspace or restricted areas should become effective on the same date as a new sectional chart for the area—a policy already the case for changes to Class B and Class C airspace. The same coordination will apply to special-use airspace such as alert areas and military operations areas, Duke said.

AOPA urged the reforms after complications about the surface area of the Class D airspace centered on McNary Field Airport in Salem, Oregon, being almost doubled in August 2015 during a redesign. The new airspace configuration extended so close to nearby Independence State Airport that pilots there expressed concerns to the Salem control tower and a regional service center about the difficulties of avoiding Class D airspace during takeoffs and landings.

Another complication was a nearly four-month lag between the effective date of the airspace changes and the effective date of the next edition of the Seattle Sectional Chart. In an interim effort to keep pilots informed about the new boundaries, the FAA issued an aeronautical chart bulletin, and called attention to the revision on Salem’s automated terminal information service (ATIS) broadcasts.

“The changes we hope to see incorporated into the new Procedures for Handling Airspace Matters publication should mitigate these kinds of known issues,” Duke said.

AOPA works closely with the FAA Airspace Policy Group to ensure that GA pilots have a fair opportunity to comment on airspace changes before the FAA makes a decision on the proposals it considers. AOPA encourages pilots to comment on airspace change proposals, thereby providing local insights that might not otherwise be called to the FAA’s attention, Duke said.

“The proposed changes to this order are positive and should facilitate a more transparent and effective process for pilots and the FAA. We are supportive of this effort to update the order and believe it will positively impact pilots once implemented,” he said.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Associate Editor Web
Associate Editor Web Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 30-year AOPA member.
Topics: Advocacy, Airspace Redesign, Special Use Airspace

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