“Are you the pilot of the airplane that just landed? The Secret Service would like to have a word with you.”
If that scenario sends a shiver up your spine, chances are an encounter with law enforcement will leave a lasting impression if you are intercepted after stumbling into airspace that has been placed under restrictions for security purposes.
There’s an official term for the path an aircraft is taking when it looks to be on the verge of committing an airspace incursion. At that point, air traffic control considers the aircraft’s radar footprint to be a “track of interest" (sometimes also rendered as "target of interest").
Here’s the definition from the Pilot/Controller Glossary: “TRACK OF INTEREST (TOI)—Displayed data representing an airborne object that threatens or has the potential to threaten North America or National Security. Indicators may include, but are not limited to: noncompliance with air traffic control instructions or aviation regulations; extended loss of communications; unusual transmissions or unusual flight behavior; unauthorized intrusion into controlled airspace or an ADIZ; noncompliance with issued flight restrictions/security procedures; or unlawful interference with airborne flight crews, up to and including hijack. In certain circumstances, an object may become a TOI based on specific and credible intelligence pertaining to that particular aircraft/object, its passengers, or its cargo.”
Note the innocent origins of some TOI occurrences, such as “extended loss of communications,” which many pilots have experienced at one time or another for reasons as simple as being “cross channeled” on their radios or having a stuck mic.
What additional complications can a TOI event cause?
A striking example is found in an Aviation Safety Reporting System report filed by a military MH-65C helicopter pilot on a training mission in the Washington, D.C., Flight Restricted Zone. The pilot described a situation in which the aircraft was requested by ATC to investigate a TOI, but because of a misunderstanding between crew members entered Class B airspace “without securing proper clearance from Potomac Approach.” ATC informed the crew later by phone that the error had caused a nearby air carrier aircraft to deviate to avoid a collision.
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