Surviving An Interception

With temporary flight restrictions popping up like summer thunderstorms, the chances of inadvertently straying into one and being intercepted are greater than ever. Heres what you need to know, just in case.


Aviation Safety Staff Report

Its no great secret that, since September 11, 2001, the U.S. military has been playing a much greater role in patrolling domestic airspace than ever before. Its also no secret that more airspace is subject to security-related limitations like temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) than previously and that the status of that airspace can change from minute to minute. In addition to stationary TFRs, there is the Washington ADIZ (See Aviation Safety, September 2004) and even roving TFRs that may follow a Presidential motorcade and physically change in location while in effect. Especially during the current campaign season, the proliferation of TFRs and other airspace restrictions is likely to get worse for the average general aviation pilot, not better.

When flying within this protected airspace-whether inadvertently or not-chances are you can expect to be intercepted by an armed aircraft, most likely a fighter jet but sometimes a helicopter or business jet configured for surveillance. As of this writing, no civilian aircraft has actually been fired upon by the U.S. military during an interception in domestic airspace, although there have been some close calls. Many observers think its just a matter of time before that happens, whether by accident or not. Too, the actual interception itself-the unnatural act of an fighter jock trying to matching a Skyhawks cruising speed, for example-raises a set of problems for which few civilian pilots have been trained. In fact, there is no FAA requirement that pilots undergo intercept procedures training and no approved syllabus for it of which were aware.

Right now, the FAAs only formal attempt to describe interception procedures and educate pilots on what to expect if intercepted consists of a few paragraphs in the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM). Generally, however, the AIMs discussion focuses on interception operations conducted in the pre-9/11 environment and involving unidentified aircraft penetrating a U.S. border. Unfortunately, that AIM section has not been updated to reflect the governments ongoing activity-some would call it paranoia-in creating additional blocks of restricted airspace.

The Interceptors
The U.S. military branch tasked with patrolling TFRs and similar airspace is the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD. Created during the Cold War to focus almost exclusively on threats coming toward the Canadian and American borders, NORAD has taken on the additional mission of ensuring domestic airspace security.

Additionally and depending on the airspace, Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters operated by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and its Office of Air and Marine Operations patrol airspace around Washington, D.C., and over certain special events, like this summers political conventions. These helicopters dont carry the same kind of armaments as, say, an F-16. Instead, they can be armed with ICE officers wielding a rifle. While that may not sound like much firepower, a Sidewinder fired from an F-16 or a few well-aimed shots from a trained rifleman can ruin your day equally. Other airborne assets are in use by different agencies, too, depending on when and where they are needed.

Rules Of Engagement?
Its not at all clear just exactly what the crew of an intercepting aircraft expects or what actions aboard the intercepted aircraft could trigger what response. When we spoke with NORAD during this articles development, we were told that the procedures outline in the AIM-plus some additional material in the sidebar on the next page-was all that could be discussed publicly. The officer with whom we spoke flatly stated that NORAD would not discuss its rules of engagement. NORADs fear is that letting the public in on how they perform an interception-beyond the minimal information available in the AIM-would be too much information.

Thats of little comfort to the Cub driver who sees a fighter blast past. While no one in their right mind would want to interfere with NORADs mission, its sobering-and more than a little frustrating-to think that a mistake or miscue during an interception could lead to shooting down an aircraft filled with innocents simply because there wasnt enough information available to its pilot.

One of the NORAD officers with whom we spoke said that the best thing pilots can do to avoid trying to discern an intercepting aircrafts intent is to not fly into restricted airspace. While thats an obvious solution to the problem, anyone who has tried to sift through all the Notams found in a complete pre-flight briefing for any flight outside of his or her local area knows that the issue is a lot more complicated. And, as has been repeatedly demonstrated just in the airspace surrounding Washington, D.C., even a crew complying with all published rules and requirements can find itself getting up close and personal with an armed escort, thanks in part to the complicated command structure used to monitor civilian airspace.

While planning and discussing this article, someone suggested that we should just go out and violate a TFR, get intercepted and report back on what worked and what didnt. No one took that bait. Consequently, were all still stuck with a set of standard procedures designed during the Cold War and based on aircraft with similar performance capabilities and equipment-a working electrical system, for example. So, what are those procedures and how can a Cub driver without a radio whos being intercepted comply?

The table above presents the basic procedures found in the AIM and combines them with some common-sense suggestions. The sidebar below presents some new information on procedures gleaned from NORAD and contained in a Notam that was current when this article was prepared.

That said, the published procedures seem to raise more questions than they answer. In our view, the first thing you should do once it becomes apparent that youve been intercepted is fly the airplane. Its a lot easier to discuss any TFR violation on the ground, instead of via the radio, even if you have the right frequency dialed in. Of course, to get on the ground, you still have to fly the airplane to a safe landing.

The second thing we would suggest is to refrain from any abrupt control inputs. For one thing, its a good bet that interceptor flights consist of a lead and a wingman: You probably dont know whos behind you, what theyre doing or where their fingers are. For another, an abrupt manuever could be misinterpreted or put you in the wingmans flightpath. Bad idea.

A third thing we would suggest is to relax. Its going to be a lot easier to fly the airplane if youre not hyperventilating. Besides, whats done is done-once youre safely on the ground and discussing the situation with the feds who will surely greet you, youll know more about the nature of the problem. You cant do a thing about it until then.

A fourth concern is the care and feeding of any passengers you may have aboard. You should calmly inform them that your flight is being diverted for unknown reasons and that you need to concentrate on flying the airplane. Ask them to look for and advise you of any aircraft flying nearby but to otherwise remain quiet, seated and belted.

If you have a working radio, tune it to 121.5 mHz and listen. If the intercepting aircraft can read your N-number, the crew will probably try to contact you using it. If they cant read your numbers, theyll make a call in the blind, describing your aircraft type, altitude and location.

Fifth, do what the intercepting aircraft directs, either by visual signals or on the radio, as soon as practical. If there is an operational reason you must refuse a direction, use the standard procedures to communicate with the intercepting aircraft.

Finally, dont make the situation worse than it already is by failing to put down the landing gear, turn on a boost pump or performing the before-landing checklist. Refer back to our first suggestion-fly the airplane.

Also With This Article
“Decoding Interception Signals”
“NORADs New Procedures?”


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