Airspace Paranoia

Are the Feds really trying to lure us into busts or does it just look that way? Solution: Plan obsessively and question ATC instructions that dont sound right


by Paul Bertorelli

Just because youre paranoid, goes the tired old joke, doesnt mean nobodys out to get you. And from our recent navigation through the nations airspace – including the regulatory redoubt around Washington, D.C. – were becoming ever more convinced that they are out to get us. They in this case is the FAA, the TSA, the Air Force and various other branches of government.

Not that anyone has planned it this way, mind you. Theres no conspiracy. No one really wants it this way. Its just typical bureaucratic bungling, lack of training and bouts of incompetence that has given us a system fraught with stumbles for even the well-prepared pilot and violations waiting to happen for those who favor the casual briefing. (In case youve been snoozing, a casual pre-flight briefing wont do anymore.)

Well give some specifics in a moment but suffice to say that the broken-down nature of the Notams system combined with security paranoia has and is creating a virulent flying environment all but guaranteed to provoke the airborne security intercepts the government says its trying to avoid. There are certainly ways to reduce the probability of getting inadvertently snared in this mess, but even a shallow probe into the day-to-day realities reveals that the governmental right hand often doesnt know what the left hand is doing.

IFR No Help
Pre-9/11, the silver bullet against busting special use airspace was to simply file IFR. Both pilots and controllers understood the rules that had been in play for years with regard to IFR flights through any kind of special use airspace. The tacit understanding was that if ATC cleared you through the airspace, you were okay to fly the route. If the airspace was hot, youd be rerouted. It was a binary, yes/no understanding.

Now it has some fuzzy gray areas bounded by outright ignorance, on both sides of the microphone. Heres one illustrative case in point: In early January, a short-notice business trip took me to the Washington, D.C., area. With the citys airspace locked down by the flight restricted zone – FRZ or freeze in local parlance – the choice of airports is limited. For my purposes, Manassas, Va., would do fine. I dutifully read all the Notams, including the one describing the FRZ, which is essentially a permanent TFR.

I also printed out a copy of the map from the FAAs TFR Web site. Washington is also surrounded by a massive ADIZ or air defense identification zone. Its easy enough to negotiate by simply filing IFR, which is what I did. The process was simple, transparent and quick. So far, so good.

The same cant be said for my departure from Manassas. Departing runway 16R, ATC usually specifies a departure – what we used to call named SIDs but now know as DPs. At Manassas, controllers seem to have the odd habit of reading the entire rather complex text instead of simply specifying the departure by its name, the Arsenal One. This complicates life for the pilot but is a mere annoyance compared to what happened next.

The Arsenal One drives the airplane west, away from Washington and the dreaded FRZ. Yet right after takeoff, the Potomac controller peeled me off the DP to a 90-degree heading, pointed directly at the FRZ. (I was going to Philadelphia, which is northeast of Manassas.) He queried if I knew about the FRZ. I replied that I did but also told the controller it wasnt depicted on the GPS moving map display.

Okay, he said, if I forget you in the next eight miles, call me back…or just turn away from the FRZ. Dont go in.

What? If you forget me? And turn … to what heading? Just any old one that looks good or did the controller have something specific in mind? In acknowledging this bizarre instruction – I wont dignify it with the word clearance – I mumbled a wisecrack about do-it-yourself air traffic control. The controller missed the joke.

In case youre not up on the fine points of IFR separation, in terminal airspace, controllers are supposed to issue clearances that will guarantee three miles of lateral separation or 1,000 feet of vertical separation between IFR aircraft. That is the raison detre of air traffic control. In giving us a conditional instruction to turn away, the controller was plopping the ball squarely between the pilot and ATC with no one clearly in charge.

What if, for example, I wanted to give that FRZ a wide berth and turn a mile sooner and 60 degrees tighter than he figured? If there was a separation bust, would it then be a pilot deviation or a controller operational error? Perhaps in the brave new world of FRZs, we can have no-fault busts.

The point is this: The controller obviously had an uncertain separation plan or he would put us on a heading to avoid the FRZ in the first place. Further, given how vigorously the military guards that stretch of the Potomac, he was clearly setting me up for a careful security once-over, if not a full-up intercept. In this airspace, if pilots are expected to avoid airspace busts or, at the very least, riling up the Secret Service, ATC will have to do better than this.

Worse Yet
A week after my incident around Washington, we heard from another reader, Bill Harris. He was approaching the Capitol area from the northeast on an IFR flight plan from New Jersey to Virginia, a stretch of airspace managed largely via computer-generated preferential routing. Somewhere over New Jersey, in airspace lorded over by whats widely regarded as the most incompetent ATC facility on the east coast, McGuire Approach, he was given an IFR routing that included a leg directly over the Washington, D.C., VOR at 6,000 feet.

DCA, we might point out, forms the geographic center of both the Washington ADIZ and the Washington FRZ, which itself extends to 18,000 feet. When Harris protested this clearance based on his correct reading of the relevant Notam, the McGuire controller informed him that it was okay to fly through the airspace, you just couldnt land at Reagan National in a GA aircraft. Oh, really?

Having heard this bit of nonsense from an air traffic controller, a pilot less savvy than Harris might have accepted it. At that point, the pilot would be entirely at the mercy of some more knowledgeable controller further down the line to reroute him from a rendezvous with a couple of Blackhawks and perhaps a bright, shining moment of fame on the evening news, whose very same commentators wonder why GA pilots are so stupid.

While it may be comforting to know that eventually, ATC would straighten out a mess like this, most controllers dont have a clue about FAR 91.185, the regulation dealing with lost communication. Under the terms of FAR 91.185, had he gone lost comm, Harris could have legally motored right along on that bogus clearance, then illegally entered the forbidden FRZ to unknown consequences.

Both of these incidents illuminate a chronic problem in the ATC culture: poor training and briefing, and the lack of strategic coordination between facilities. Any controller working airspace abutting to or near the Washington FRZ should be as intimately familiar with the terms of the Notam as pilots are expected to be. Yet as these two cases illustrate, one controller was playing chicken with the FRZ boundary and the other was flat out wrong about it. If federal employees dont know the score, how can we? (An NTSB follow-up of Harris complaint revealed that, indeed, McGuire Approach had significant shortcomings in its understanding of both the FRZ Notam and revised approved routing through this airspace. Its working on getting controllers properly briefed.)

Speaking of Notams
In the current security environment, pilots who hope to retain their certificates know enough to check Notams for TFRs and other critical data, even if they dont get the line-by-line weather briefing. But occasionally, even a diligent effort to check Notams wont be enough. The system is simply too haphazard and difficult to decode. Even ATC drops the ball from time to time.

In January, for instance, a Beechcraft King Air was on an IFR flight from New Smyrna Beach, Fla., to Hanover County, Va. It was snowing in the northeast so the pilot dutifully checked Notams for runway closures. Finding none, the crew pushed ahead. But there was a Notam closing the sole runway, 34/16, at Hanover County due to snow cover, which was to be plowed clear later. But the Notam wasnt properly disseminated and, if ATC had it, it wasnt passed on. The King Air landed on the snowy runway, skidded and ran off one end. There were no injuries but the aircraft was damaged, just the sort of thing Notams are designed to prevent.

In another recent incident, an aircraft was inbound IFR to Frederick, Md. Once again, a runway was Notamd closed for snow removal. The Notam may not have been available pre-departure but, in any case, ATC had it and didnt pass it along.

The aircraft landed on the closed runway, luckily with no damage or injuries. Although enforcement seems unlikely in both of these case, thats cold comfort when you consider that runways are often closed because theyre littered with construction equipment.

What to Do
Obviously, in a system this fouled up, you have to have a highly developed survival instinct to negotiate even plain vanilla airspace without getting tangled up in enforcement worries. This sort of thing was going on pre-9/11 but it didnt seem to matter as much. With security concerns at an all-time high, especially around Washington, D.C., the probability of doing something inadvertently stupid is ever greater. Unfortunately, ATC may aid and abet, without intending to. The reality is that controllers arent interested in aggressive enforcement and the FAA truly wants this system to work, even though it often doesnt.

The only practical way to avoid the inadvertent is to seek all of the information you can on current Notams and TFRs. Do it methodically and habitually. The days of just going to the airport on a sunny day, even for a local flight, are gone, at least for the foreseeable future. Many country airports may be exempt from this worry but a surprise TFR or Notam is always a possibility.

Our home plate airport, Venice, Fla., is a busy uncontrolled airport on Floridas west coast. We were planning a short equipment test flight last summer, skipped the full weather briefing but called FSS for a Notams check that hadnt appeared on DUATs the night before. To our surprise, there was a Presidential TFR in effect for nearby Fort Myers. We would have busted it if we hadnt made the second call. As we go to press, it happened again, this time a Presidential TFR for the Tampa, Fla., area.

This is not to say that DUATs isnt a reliable source of Notams. It generally is, if you bother to look and look carefully. Unfortunately, because of FAA CYA mentality, the listings are so larded up with extraneous detail that the nugget you really need may be obscured in pages of gibberish. In our view, DUATs is nearly as badly conceived as the Notams system itself.

Recently, DUATs has had available graphical TFRs, including presidential TFRs, depicted on a U.S. map. If any apply, you can tell at a glance. Clicking on the TFR will pop up a box explaining the details. Further, AOPAs Web site also shows TFRs graphically and as the association becomes aware of presidential TFRs, it announces them on its site and in its weekly e-newsletter. AOPAs site also has plain language interpretation of TFRs and Notams thats quite good. Further, it has an interactive online program that explains the Washington ADIZ in illuminating detail. (See

The FAAs Web-based Notam/TFR service is at We question how reliable and up to date it is, but the FAA is supposed to be the source of all Notams, so they oughta know.

Finally, a comprehensive list of TFRs is available from the Bureau of Land Management at BLM updates this effort every 30 minutes, 24/7. While it may be the best of the bunch, its not official and wont serve any kind of CYA role.

As a downside protection against enforcement action, its a good idea to do a full N-number briefing whenever you fly, either through DUATs or FSS. In the event that you get blindesided by the system, youll then have some proof that you at least checked for Notams. For local flights, I simply make a one-minute cellphone call to FSS before departure, querying about new Notams and TFRs.

Although I dont like to file IFR unless the weather requires it, I have broken my habit of flying long cross country trips VFR without talking to ATC. Traffic advisories are there for the asking and when a surprise TFR pops up after your briefing – it has happened – ATC is likely to know about it. If they dont, the FAA will have a difficult time insisting that you should have.

In the event that an F-16 appears off your wing in a surprise intercept – that has happened, too – youll have a distinct advantage if youre on an ATC frequency. In fact, weve been told that the intercept will likely not happen if youre talking to ATC because before taking up the chase, the military asks controllers if they know anything about the subject aircraft. If ATC is talking to the airplane, there may be no need for an intercept.

Last, current charts and navigation data will help. For my trip to Washington, I had current paper charts, plus a printed out map of the ADIZ and FRZ. What I did not have – and should have had – was a current database for the Garmin 530, which would have depicted the FRZ. Although that wouldnt have solved the problem of the ambiguous clearance, at least I would have had a more accurate situational picture of where the FRZ boundary was. Next time, Ill know better. Ill also know that simply filing IFR no longer makes worries about restricted airspace go away. Maybe everyone should remember that.

Also With This Article
“When ATC Leads You Astray”
“Tricks and Traps”

-Paul Bertorelli is editorial director of Belvoirs aviation group. Hes a CFII-ATP.


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