Thinking of flying to Washington, D.C.? Concerned about the security-related restrictions and airspace changes put into place? Some concern is justified-you need to be sure you have the latest information and understand the required procedures-but its not worth losing sleep over. Even though the three GA airports closest to downtown Washington are closed to transients and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) is probably permanently closed to non-scheduled operations not participating in some kind of government-approved security program, the remainder of the airspace surrounding the nations capital is available to you. Youll have to do a bit more planning than before and youll need to file a flight plan, even if VFR, but most pilots shouldnt have a problem with the airspace, associated rules and procedures.
Before kicking the tires and lighting the fires for D.C., though, there are a few things you need to know and a few steps you should take. In the end, flying in the D.C. area is kind of like high school: Yes, its a pain. Yes, its stupid. Yes, its immature. But its there and we have to deal with it.
The Freeze And The D.C.-3
The first thing to know about planning flight operations near the Washington, D.C., area is that a sizeable chunk of airspace is closed to non-scheduled flights lacking a waiver or other special approval. Established by Notam 3/2126 on March 18, 2003, the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Area Flight Restricted Zone (FRZ, or freeze) is roughly analogous to the inner, surface-based tier of the Class B airspace surrounding DCA and extends to 17,999 feet MSL. Within the FRZ, no general aviation flights are permitted without a pre-approved waiver or without being operated under SFAR 94. As was demonstrated on June 9, 2004, when a Beech King Air carrying Kentuckys governor lost its transponder but landed at DCA anyway, authorities will take a very dim view of any unauthorized penetrations. In this instance, at least one jet fighter was launched from nearby Andrews AFB and an ICE (formerly the U.S. Customs Service) Blackhawk helicopter was vectored to intercept the turboprop. The FRZ includes DCA, which is closed to all non-scheduled operations until further notice. Period.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and special procedures apply to the three GA airports within the FRZ. Only pilots based at the so-called D.C.-3 airports-Washington Executive Airport/Hyde Field (W32), College Park Airport (CGS) or Potomac Airfield (VKX)-who have undergone an FAA/TSA fingerprint-based background check may fly to or from these three facilities. To do so, they must file a flight plan, IFR or VFR, using a personal identification code and then receive a specific ATC clearance to enter or depart the airspace.
Details on operating at the D.C.-3 are in SFAR 94 and Notam 3/0853. While SFAR 94 allows the D.C.-3 airports to operate under the increased security regime of the FRZ, transient operations are not allowed.
Surrounding the FRZ is the Washington Air Defense Identification Zone (D.C. ADIZ), which was also established by Notam 3/2126. The D.C. ADIZ imposes a handful of additional procedures on GA operators flying to and from affected airports, but they are nothing with which the average pilot is not already familiar. Equipment requirements are the same as for operating in Class B airspace: a two-way communications radio capable of operating on the correct frequencies and a Mode C transponder. Unfortunately, the combination of requirements coupled with fear of the consequences of doing something stupid have kept many area pilots on the ground unnecessarily. Similarly, pilots who are based elsewhere and would normally fly themselves to D.C. have decided to simply avoid the area altogether. Thats unfortunate-D.C.-area FBOs need your business, too-and probably an inappropriate response considering the ADIZ as a whole.
The D.C. ADIZs lateral dimensions basically are the same as the Baltimore-Washington Class B airspace but with an extension to the south and to the east. Like the FRZ, it rises to 17,999 feet MSL. The Class B airspace remains; a separate clearance is required to operate within it. Although the FRZ has been plotted for some time, only recently did the ADIZ appear on new visual charts. If flying in the area, its a good idea to have a current chart with all of the FRZ and ADIZ boundaries plotted.
Operationally, the ADIZ is a bit of a nuisance, but nothing anyone comfortable with Class B-or even Class D-operations shouldnt be able to handle. The sidebar on the opposite page distills down those requirements and includes some helpful telephone numbers. The requirements involve filing a flight plan, obtaining a discrete squawk code, communicating with ATC and proceeding directly to your destination airport or directly to the fix you filed as your ADIZ exit point. Otherwise, normal airspace rules supposedly apply within the ADIZ (see below).
Oddities And Transitions
Despite the time that has elapsed since the ADIZ was created, it remains somewhat dynamic.
For example, on June 18, 2004, the FAA issued Notam 4/5555, which reinforces the requirement that operators in the ADIZ have a working Mode C transponder. When the Notam hit the streets, some local FAA officials interpreted the new information as banning closed traffic pattern operations and low-level flight in the ADIZ, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. That hiccup was resolved later in the day after FAA headquarters got involved and delivered to area facilities the message that nothing had changed and operations previously allowed could continue as before Notam 4/5555 was published.
Other modifications to ADIZ requirements and procedures include changes in flght plan information. Early on, the area flight service stations did not require that all of the information blocks on a standard flight plan form be completed for a VFR operation. In the early stages, only basic information regarding the aircraft type, N-number, color, ADIZ-entry/ADIZ-exit points and the time of the proposed operation was requested. There was no requirement, for example, that the name of the pilot or the number of souls on board be listed. For some reason, the FAAs lawyers got involved. Now, even VFR flights in the ADIZ must file a complete flight plan, even if the proposed flight involves 10 minutes of flight time.
Similarly, the ATC services provided can change. For example, flights within the ADIZ but outside the Class B are operating in Class E airspace. In that airspace, the normal rules apply with respect to weather, for example, or ATC-provided vectors for aircraft separation. One distinct difference, however, is that the route you fly is not totally at your discretion. Unless you are transiting from one airport within the ADIZ to another, you are expected to enter the area and fly directly to your destination by the most expeditous route. Exiting the ADIZ is similar: Plan to fly the shortest, most direct route out of the ADIZ.
Even though you are in Class E airspace at the fringes of the ADIZ, your altitude choice may not be at your discretion. On numerous occasions, controllers at the Potomac TRACON have directed exiting aircraft to maintain a specific altitude until clear of the ADIZ. Although this is contrary to Class E airspace rules for VFR operations, its not clear whether such direction is for traffic, for some ADIZ operational reason or simply to make the controllers job easier. To be sure, there is nothing in the Notams or other official documents allowing ATC to mandate a specific altitude for ADIZ operations.
Also, the routing you can expect when operating VFR changes from time to time. One example involves entering the ADIZ from over the Brooke (BRV) VOR. Aircraft inbound from southeast of BRV with the Manassas (VA) Regional Airport (HEF) as their destination variously have been allowed to proceed directly to HEF from a point some 20 miles east of BRV. On the other hand, two weeks later, the same aircraft in the same location was denied that shortcut and told to fly over BRV and then proceed to HEF.
Operations under IFR have also seen some odd handling and controller behavior. For example, IFR departures from HEF are usually routed over Casanova VOR (CSN) per the Arsenal One departure procedure (or an alternate set of departure instructions closely mirroring the Arsenal One). From CSN, IFR departures follow one of a handful of transitions depending on their on-course heading and the days flow. A problem arises when ATC engages in some broken-field running and tries to hand out some shortcuts. Again, when departing HEF, rather than force piston drivers to follow the Arsenal One procedure west and north to go east, ATC sometimes will provide some shortcuts. These will usually work to sandwich flights between Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD)-it hasnt been renamed to honor a former president, yet-to the west and the FRZ to the east.
The problem is that ATC will put HEF departures on a vector for the FRZ and seemingly forget about them, only to come up with a northbound vector at the last moment before penetrating that airspace. Were aware of this happening more than just once or twice. A moving map GPS is worth its weight in gold in this instance, although its unclear what would happen-either immediately or through the FAAs enforcement apparatus-if a flight was vectored into the FRZ.
Controllers in the D.C. area are usually pretty unimpressed about the whole ADIZ thing. Theyre doing a great job, understand that their primary function remains to separate and sequence traffic, and do their best to accommodate requests. If something doesnt work out to your liking, dont blame the controllers-they didnt dream up this stuff.
Finally, remember that you must file a flight plan with a flight service station; filing via DUAT or some other electronic service simply wont do. Although the rationale for this requirement isnt clear (maybe someone wants to check to see if you have a Middle-eastern accent), the practical impact is sometimes-lengthy delays trying to get through to a D.C.-area AFSS, especially on good-weather days. In fact, delays in accessing the AFSS to file a flight plan, plus ATCs uncanny ability to lose it when you need it most, top users list of compaints about the ADIZ.
Early on in the life of the ADIZ, the FAA did not allocate sufficient resources; its not nearly as bad as it used to be.
Like Forrest Gumps box of chocolates, you never know what youre going to get in the ADIZ from day to day.
Tips And Tricks
Despite the additional complexity the D.C. ADIZ imposes on pilots, there are some very basic things you can do to streamline any planned flights to airports surrounding the capital.
First, be sure to obtain a thorough pre-flight briefing, including a review of Notam 3/2126s contents, since certain special events may result in substantial changes to the everyday ADIZ requirements. This is especially true during times of heightened security concerns, e.g., when the nation is on so-called orange alert. If you are arriving from the north, verify the status of the airspace surrounding Camp David, Md., before takeoff. The Prohibited Area there, P-40, expands and contracts, usually on the weekends. Be sure to carry current charts.
Second, file IFR if you can. When operating under IFR, the D.C. ADIZ is almost transparent. When arriving, you can cancel your IFR flight plan to facilitate a visual approach to one of the airports in the ADIZ as long as you dont squawk 1200 on your transponder. (NEVER squawk 1200 in the D.C. ADIZ.)
Third, use the Leesburg (VA) Automated Flight Service Station (DCA AFSS), especially when departing the area. The DCA AFSS is always up-to-speed on the airspaces status and can answer any questions; a distant AFSS just wont be current on the latest information. To contact the DCA AFSS directly, use the toll-free number 866-225-7410. If you use your cellphone to call the nationwide toll-free number, 800-WXBRIEF, you may get routed to the facility serving your phones area code. Storing this discrete number for the DCA AFSS in your cellphone is a good idea. When you eventually get to speak with a briefer, make sure he or she understands you want to file an ADIZ VFR flight plan.
Fourth, dont expect to receive a formal clearance into the ADIZ-it just wont happen. Once you have been assigned a discrete transponder code and been radar identified by the Potomac TRACON, youre good to go. But, if it makes you feel better, go ahead and ask. In the event your VFR flight plan is lost, youll either have to file another one via radio with the DCA AFSS (122.2 MHz) or land at an outlying airport and sort it out over the telephone.
Fifth, if arriving VFR, get into the system as soon as possible. Dont fly right up to the ADIZ boundary and call Potomac TRACON expecting to be greeted with open arms. Those boys and girls are very busy these days, especially when the weather is good VFR, so plan ahead. Ideally, youll obtain VFR flight following long before nearing the D.C. ADIZ.
Finally, dont be afraid to use one of the non-towered airports within the ADIZ. Arrival procedures are the same as for nearby towered facilities, but you must obtain a transponder code and ATC frequency before takeoff. Call the Potomac TRACON at 540-349-7579 or 866-429-5882 before departing a non-towered airport in the ADIZ. The procedure is similar to obtaining an IFR clearance to depart from a non-towered airport.
The restrictions imposed on general aviation by the D.C. ADIZ and FRZ are debatable for their merit and burden on pilots, controllers and the infrastructure. Regardless, they are a fact of life. With a little planning and a little understanding, they should not be a problem. Just remember to file a flight plan.
Also With This Article
“Flying The Washington ADIZ”