Editor's Log

August 2004 Issue




Run For Your Lives

It was a normal June afternoon in the Washington, D.C., area—hazy, hot and humid. The main event was preparing for former president Ronald Reagan’s state funeral later in the week.

On Capitol Hill, the normal ebb and flow of tourists, interns and official Washington went on unremarkably. Suddenly, alarms blared, beepers beeped and people began running. “You have one minute to impact!” police reportedly announced. Images of well-dressed men and women sprinting away from the Capitol—some kicking off their shoes—were captured by the media.

But it was all a false alarm. A Beech King Air carrying Kentucky’s governor was inbound to the otherwise-closed-to-GA DCA under a special waiver program for VIPs. Its transponder had failed shortly after punching out of the Greater Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport but ATC cleared it all the way to DCA, and into the most protected airspace in the country, with nary a hiccup. Someone monitoring a radar screen noticed the primary radar return boring into the Washington Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) and its inner Flight Restriction Zone (FRZ) and pushed the panic button. Literally.

Published reports indicate armed aircraft were vectored for an intercept. Those same published reports tell us more than five minutes elapsed before security officials were able to verify the inoperative transponder with ATC. Not knowing any of this, the King Air’s pilot made an uneventful landing at DCA. Since then, the FAA has issued a new Notam stating an inop transponder in the ADIZ can ruin your day. This is the same FAA still ignoring Congress’s mandate for a report on the ADIZ by mid-January 2004.

This episode would be hilarious if it didn’t highlight a glaring problem with the ADIZ, the FRZ and temporary flight restrictions everywhere: The ATC system was not created and was not developed as a national security tool. However, it has been forced into such a role, and this nonsense is the result.

Almost three years after the September 11 terrorist attacks, there is apparently no effective real-time communication between ATC and homeland security bureaucrats. Something needs to give, but this episode won’t be the catalyst.

Stan Fetter, manager of Maryland’s restricted-access Washington Executive Airport/Hyde Field and long-time operator of a D.C.-area airborne traffic-reporting fleet, recently summed it all up: “Never has so much been spent on so little by so many who were so uninformed and so determined to stay that way.” Given what Stan’s had to deal with, that’s probably an understatement.

The real danger is the continuing impact on aviation safety. All too often, ATC frequencies are jammed as pilots and controllers cope with changing rules and procedures. Required flight plans get lost. Confusion spread by dueling Notams and enforcement fears keeps pilots from flying. At least one off-airport landing in the D.C. area has resulted from security-related ATC delays. Only the feds know the toll on their pilots and equipment.

With panicked government workers, deluged controllers and justifiably confused pilots, it’s becoming obvious to even the general media that the prescribed cure is worse than the disease. Until the rest of the bureaucracy figures out this too-simple conclusion, it’s up to me and you to ensure that aviation safety and aviation security can co-exist.


—Jeb Burnside