Pilots should routinely monitor the VHF emergency frequency 121.5, especially when they are not in contact with ATC by operating IFR or using VFR flight following. The circumstances surrounding the recent airspace incursion around the Washington DC TFR would have been different for many people as well as for the pilots had they been monitoring 121.5 MHz. As an active member of the military aviation community, it is my experience in a number of these events, ones that do not make the press, this simple expedient has not been followed. Pilots are reminded that Notam FDC 4/4386, in effect since September 2001, specifies that all aircraft operating in United States national airspace, if capable, shall maintain a listening watch on VHF guard 121.5….
Fortunately, a radio transmission like, Aircraft eight miles south of Somewhereville Airport, heading 050; turn to 180 immediately or you may be fired upon has never been directed toward me. It is unfortunate, however, that I have had the opportunity to hear such warnings too often as I monitor 121.5 MHz. What I find most unnerving is the duration and repetition of a controllers attempts to contact oblivious pilots as F-16s are being vectored for an intercept with armed weapons systems. Such circumstances would have been easily corrected or minimized had the pilots monitored the Guard frequency.
Although Notam FDC 4/4386 is routinely ignored, monitoring Guard is a worthwhile practice that should be made into a habit early in training. I began flying as a teenager in the 1980s, and I obtained my Commercial ticket with Instrument rating prior to entering military service. With the benefit of some hindsight, I find that the practice of regularly monitoring the emergency frequency was notably absent from my civilian flight training. I recently encountered a Student pilot preparing for his FAA checkride who had never heard of this practice. In the military, I am both equipped and required to monitor UHF Guard frequency (243.0) at all times, and I have since extended this habit to include 121.5 MHz.
Having the benefit of extra radios and/or dual monitoring capability has made me the cynical spectator to various circumstances which include TFR incursions. Pilots in contact with ATC (IFR or under flight following) can easily be notified of potential incursions, but pilots not in communication with ATC can and should monitor 121.5 MHz while operating near TFRs in order to prevent or quickly correct an incursion. Of course, knowing where the TFRs are can be the trick, which makes monitoring all that much more important.
Equally important, pilots need to assume some responsibility and consider the questions being juggled by command authorities. Is the intruder a lost pilot? Will indicators of biological attack appear three days after his transgression? Is the intruder testing our tolerance and reaction time?
Pilots who use effective communication skills and habits enable the present system to work but those who practice poor habits make precedents that can be used to expand these restrictions for all of us.