NOTE TO NON-PILOTS: A “TFR” is a “Temporary Flight Restriction”. It is an area of airspace, typically around the president or some other person, in which we are not allowed to fly. Because people move around, TFR’s can be any time, any place. Because of this, they are NOT marked on any map. But we still have to avoid them. How? By asking a flight service station where they are. Sounds simple, eh? Read on…
Here is a mark of a good pilot: He knows that following the rules is NOT a guarantee of a successful flight. He knows that common sense and a real understanding of the aviation infrastructure is needed, and that the rules are just the most minimal framework, and not the complete picture of how to fly.
Case in point: I had just gotten my private license and had only a little flight time when some friends wanted to go up with me in a little Cessna 172 to the mountains on a warm summer day. Friends. Cessna. Mountains. Warm summer day. They sound NICE. And not only do they SOUND nice, but everything about that flight was perfectly LEGAL. The plane is certified to carry 4 people. I was certified to fly the plane. No laws were broken. But, when the poor, weak little Cessna was struggling along in the thin, hot, high-altitude mountain air at maximum weight with 4 people on board and full flaps on the approach and barely enough power to execute a missed approach, an accident almost resulted. A 172 just can’t climb with full flaps at gross weight at high altitude on a hot day, and we had gotten slow enough that we could not suddenly retract the flaps without risking a stall in the gusting wind on our missed approach. That was really bad news, and proof that just being legal is NOT enough to be safe. This should really be no surprise.
That was many many years ago, and now after 20 years and 700 hours of flying I think I have decent instinct on how to fly safely, and I know that the rules are just the skimpiest OUTLINE of how you really need to fly.
Pity, though, that I still thought that the most minimum adherence to the rules would save me from a TFR-violation, because just like the minimum adherence to the rules will NOT save you from an accident, I can now tell you that the minimum adherence to the rules will NOT save you from a TFR violation, an F-18 intercept, considerable risk, taxpayer expense, and threat to your pilot’s license.
Now that I have your attention, here is how it happened:
Friday, March 17, 4:11 PM East Coast time, near Boston, Massachusetts:
I am about to leave a business meeting in the Boston area to go home to Columbia, South Carolina. I pick up my cellphone and call flight service. I ask for the weather (it is perfect) and if there are any TFRS (there are not). Great. I take off 10 minutes later, ducking under Boston’s Class-B to stay out of their hair and head home. I set my radios to 121.50 (the emergency frequency) just on that tiny off-chance that someone will be saying something on the emergency frequency and needs help that I can give… my plane can loiter for a long time, it can show other traffic on it’s moving map, and thanks to my navigation equipment I always know where I am (and anyone else nearby that might be lost)… so perhaps I could render aid so I typically monitor 121.50 when flying solo.
Friday, March 17, 7:50 PM East Coast Time, approaching Hagerstown, Maryland, near Washington DC:
I notice that my direct flight-path will take me through the edge of a little Prohibited Area called P-40. No problem. I put the autopilot on HEADING mode and twiddle the heading to take me on a path CLEAR of Prohibited Area P-40 (which overlays Restricted Area 4009). It is now dark, so I do NOT see the large lighter-colored area AROUND P-40 that is neither prohibited nor restricted… but just “lighter”. In the dim cockpit lighting, I just don’t notice this subtle difference in shading on the paper map. No human eye can detect subtle shades of green in dim red light. Of course I had seen this area earlier when studying the chart in light of day, but “lighter area” does not mean anything in the map legend, and it’s invisible now in the dim red cockpit lighting as well.
Suddenly, on the radio on 121.50, someone urgently declares: “AIRCRAFT ON THE 060 RADIAL FROM HAGERSTOWN, YOU ARE ENTERING RESTRICTED AIRSPACE. TURN AROUND AND CONTACT ATC IMMEDIATELY.”
Hmm.. I am certainly around the 060 radial from Hagerstown, but there is no way I am in the Restricted Area 4009 or Prohibited Area P-40, and that is the only Restricted Area or Prohibited Area around. My Avidyne moving map, my Garmin-430 #1, my Garmin-430 #2, and my paper map all say the same thing: I am about 7 miles AWAY from P-40, and my flight path will KEEP me CLEAR of P-40. This guy must be talking to to someone else… funny I don’t see him on my moving map though… he must be up ahead of me and to the left about 7 miles, just out of range of my traffic-sensor.
2 minutes later: “AIRCRAFT ON THE 090 RADIAL FROM HAGERSTOWN, YOU ARE IN RESTRICTED AIRSPACE. TURN AROUND AND CONTACT ATC IMMEDIATELY.” I check my position and there is no doubt he is talking about me. Even though there is no doubt that I am NOT in P-40. So something is wrong. I start to turn away from P-40 just to put more distance between myself and it to be safe. As I do so, I notice there is other traffic moving towards me on my moving map… my first thought is that it must be the “other” plane that I imagined had violated P-40. As the other plane rapidly approaches, I turn and descend hard to try to avoid a mid-air collision. It quickly becomes apparent that this guy is INTENT on getting close to me, though, and in a moment a pair of pulsing red lights is holding position off my left wing, 50 yards ahead and to the left. He holds there absolutely perfectly for a few moments and then suddenly pulls forward and cuts right across in front of me to the right. In the last little bit of sunset, I see the perfect silhouette of the F-18 against the clouds.
I quickly hit the NEAREST AIRPORT page on my moving map and grab the first frequency I can find: “Hagerstown tower this is Cirrus 8141Q I am directly over the field at 8,500 feet I have heard transmissions to an aircraft in my area that was violating restricted airspace but I never entered P-40 and I have just been intercepted by an F-18.”
“Cirrus 8141Q squawk 4126.”
“Cirrus 8141Q squawking 4126… and just so I can breathe easier up here, can you tell me what happened? I show that I did not enter P-40.”
“Oh yeah, sometimes they make that area bigger, and you were in the bigger part”.
So that’s how it happens.
I navigated carefully, and avoided any published restricted or prohibited or ADIZ or Class-B areas.
I checked for TFR’s, and was told there were none.
So I thought I was fine.
But that’s still not enough.
So it can happen to you as well, because you think now what I used to think: that you are safe if you you know how to navigate, and you call on the phone and check for TFR’s before your flight. But you are NOT safe. Why? Because the guy on the phone at the Flight Service Station cannot predict the future. (a TFR could come up at any place, at any time.)
So how can we avoid this?
Well, there are things that we pilots, the policy-makers, the map-makers, and even the guy that watches the airspace with his radio on 121.50 could all do differently, any ONE of which would have stopped this dangerous, expensive, and pilot’s-license-threatening violation from happening.
Let’s look at what these things are. We will start with me (APPLIES TO ALL OTHER PILOTS!):
->Do NOT think that the FSS briefer can predict the future. He can NOT tell where TFRs will be 3 hours into the future, and for a 5-hour flight, that means you can’t count on him to be right. Just because he SAYS there are no TFRs does NOT mean there won’t be TFRs when you get there. DON’T COUNT ON THE FSS TO REVEAL TFR’S TO YOU.
->Since you should NOT count on your phone briefing to remain accurate, ask the LOCAL FSS IN THE WASHINGTON AREA about the TFRs ONCE YOU ARRIVE IN THE WASHINGTON AREA. The briefing you got before takeoff could be 3 hours old and 600 miles away at this point… you need a LOCAL FSS that actually knows what is going on HERE. NOW. How often does one person in a company or government not know what some other person in that same company or government is doing? IT HAPPENS ALL THE TIME! ALL THE TIME!!!!! FORGET about your phone briefing from 3 hours and 600 miles in the past… you need the LOCAL FSS to know what is going on NOW.
->Get the XM-weather download for your Avidyne or Garmin.. they download TFR’s as well!
->Get flight following wherever you go. Or go on a VFR flight plan. Or go on an IFR flight plan.
What can the policy-makers do?
->MARK THE FULL PROHIBITED AREA AS A PROHIBITED AREA ON THE MAP. WE ARE TRAINED TO AVOID PROHIBITED AREAS, NOT AREAS OF SUBTLE COLOR VARIATION THAT ARE INVISIBLE IN NIGHT LIGHTING AND HAVE NO ENTRY IN THE MAP LEGEND. Some people WILL say that this would reduce our freedom to move around the country, but that freedom as already been reduced by the TFR… AT LEAST LET US KNOW ABOUT IT BY MARKING IT AS A PROHIBITED AREA ON THE MAP! Make the prohibited area active, or course, only when needed, so the infringement on our freedoms is minimum. As it is now, we do NOT know about the expanded area, so we stumble into it and cause BIG problems for ourselves and the taxpayers. If it were DRAWN as prohibited, then at least we would ALWAYS know it was there, so we would KNOW to call the FSS and ASK if it was active. The incursions would stop! And, since it would usually NOT be active, we usually WOULD be able to fly freely. THE DIFFERENCE IS: WE WOULD KNOW ABOUT IT, SO WE COULD MAKE THE RIGHT DECISION!
An EXCELLENT idea that Andrew Schroeder gave me was to simply indicate the FULL radius as CLASS-B, just like the rest of the Washington Airspace. This does NOT rule the airspace out for general use, but instead JUST MAKES PEOPLE CALL ON THE RADIO TO ENTER IT… this would have stopped this incursion simply because I would SEE the Class-B and not enter it without calling first! This would have saved all of this trouble, risk, and expense, without signifigantly reducing our freedom to fly.
What can the map-makers do?
->Do NOT use the very low-contrast “color washout” to identify the possible area of the TFR. It is totally invisible in dim red night cockpit lighting, where subtle green color differences are completely invisible. SUBTLE GREEN COLOR DIFFERENCES ARE INVISIBLE IN DIM RED LIGHT.
What can the guy that watches the airspace and warns people away on 121.50 do?
->Tell us we are going to hit the airspace BEFORE we hit it (surprise), and tell us that we are about to enter “A TFR”. This is an amazingly important distinction. He kept telling me “You are entering restricted airspace” to which I mentally replied: “He must be talking to someone else, because I am definitely NOT in Restricted area 4009, which is the only restricted area around, so he MUST be talking to someone else.”
So those are some changes… any ONE of them being done would have stopped this event, and all others like it.
I hope that at least 2 pilots read this and AVOID an incursion that otherwise would have happened… if they do, then this experience will have been a net GAIN: ONE guy gets in trouble to stop TWO others from doing the same thing… SO TELL OTHER PILOTS ABOUT THIS.
Remember, this is still a great country. Despite the climate of fear, my meetings and phone discussions with security people after I landed made it clear that these people want to maximize our freedoms as much as possible within the security the constraints they have. The Secret Service security people were actually reluctant to intrude on my time and privacy by just FIGURING OUT WHAT HAPPENED.
NOTE: AFTER THIS INCIDENT, I tried to get a copy of my weather briefing from Lockheed Martin using the Freedom of Information Act. The Freedom of Information Act is a law passed by the government that says that taxpayers may receive information from the government about it’s workings. When the Federal Government ran the flight service stations, anyone could obtain a copy of their weather briefing using the Freedom Of Information Act. The government has outsourced flight service to Lockheed, though, AND LOCKHEED HAS REFUSED TO PROVIDE ME WITH A COPY OF MY BRIEFING, CLAIMING “WE DO NOT PROVIDE THAT INFORMATION TO THE PUBLIC”. As a private company, Lockheed is NOT bound by the Freedom of Information Act. So now, we have a situation where Lockheed gave me a briefing indicating there were no TFR’s, the FAA is now investigating me for violation of a TFR, and Lockheed has (but will not provide me) with a tape of that weather briefing proving that I asked for TFR’s. My lawyer has also, thus far, been unable to get Lockheed to provide a copy of the erroneous weather briefing that started this whole circus. Something to know about Lockheed. (Also they are now 500 million dollars OVER their planned operational budget for operating Flight Service Stations).