AOPA is working with U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the FAA to help pilots share airspace safely with unmanned aircraft flying border surveillance missions five days a week from San Angelo Regional/Mathis Field Airport in Texas.
The FAA imposes temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) for each flight of two 10,500-pound General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper Predator B unmanned aircraft in the airspace where the aircraft climb to, and descend from, Class A airspace (18,000 feet msl to 60,000 feet msl).
The TFRs’ frequency is not the only concern for general aviation in the vicinity of the San Angelo airport, a field with approximately 170 based GA aircraft and estimated annual activity of 41,900 civilian operations and about 53,000 military operations.
Two victor airways traverse airspace of the TFRs that typically extend vertically from 3,500 feet msl up to, but not including, 18,000 feet msl. IFR flight beneath the TFR is not an option because the minimum en route altitude for both airways is 4,000 feet msl in the TFR airspace.
AOPA has suggested raising the floor of the TFRs to 6,000 feet, or relocating the TFRs west of the airport, said Rune Duke, AOPA director of airspace and air traffic.
“The TFR is reportedly causing pilots to fly many more miles out of their way to avoid the TFRs and because these airways essentially become unusable,” he said.
As TFRs and their impacts go, however, it could be worse: Duke notes that the San Angelo TFR airspace has not been entirely off-limits.
In the effective period of the TFR described here, aircraft could enter or exit the TFR provided they were on a discrete transponder code assigned by an air traffic control (ATC) facility, squawking the discrete code at all times while in the TFR, and remaining in two-way radio communications with ATC.
Predator Bs—turboprop-driven non-weaponized aircraft with a 66-foot wingspan—occupy the TFR airspace only briefly for spiraling climbs and descents before proceeding on surveillance flights. Why not reopen the airspace after they have reached cruise altitude on their flights that cover the Texas-Mexico boundary from McAllen near the Gulf Coast almost to El Paso in western Texas?
The reasons are emergencies, unforecast severe weather, and the difficulty of reinstating a TFR on short notice, explained Erik Soykan, director, air operations, National Air Security Operations of CBP’s Air and Marine Operations.
In an emergency, Soykan said, a CBP drone would have to be returned to San Angelo because there is no alternate takeoff and landing site for the unmanned aircraft.
Diverting for bad weather during the flights that can last up to 20 hours also would require a return to San Angelo. Care is taken to minimize that risk: Both the Predator pilot on the ground and a command duty officer must approve a flight, with weather a component of a risk-assessment matrix for deciding whether to fly the Predator B.
“They say it’s unmanned, but it’s actually very manned. It requires a significant amount of manpower to make these things fly,” he said.
Another reason to keep the TFRs active, he said, is that the aircraft have limited capability to detect and avoid non-transponder-equipped manned aircraft that might be in the area.
AOPA has made the prolonged effective times of the TFRs a high priority for resolution as the joint discussions proceed with CBP and the FAA, said Duke, who met with Soykan and other CBP Air and Marine Operations officers on March 13 to discuss the San Angelo TFRs.
It would be up to the FAA to approve relocating the TFRs west of the airport, as AOPA is urging, and as CBP has previously expressed willingness to consider, Soykan said.
Until the last few days of March, CBP operated its Predator deployment site in San Angelo 24 hours a day, five days week. The continuous-operations schedule allowed flights to be launched on one staff shift and continued by the next, enhancing efficiency, Soykan said.
Later, the activity was scaled back to 19-hour operating periods. The drawback, Soykan said, is that the shorter operating periods make it more likely that a flight delayed by weather might be canceled if the deployment site’s daily shutdown time became a factor.
CBP began using its San Angelo base for the border-surveillance flights in 2016 for a four-week trial. A goal was to determine whether the arid climate and better weather made the region preferable to continuing to fly from Corpus Christi, where operations frequently faced unfavorable weather, strong winds, and the corrosive effects of the salty Gulf of Mexico.
The agency has told AOPA that this year’s San Angelo operations may last three months.
The future is difficult to predict.
Soykan noted that a high priority for Predator flights is drug interdiction as part of an international force operating in the eastern Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean—“the main waters where narcotics flow” toward the United States.
“Demand for the Predator program is quite high,” he said. “We don’t have enough resources to handle all the requests we do get.”