There I was, climbing through 5,500 feet in southeastern Texas, when I had a close encounter with a Boeing 747 named Air Force One. It was closer than I would have liked, anyway.
I was flying my Mooney to Florida last April for the Sun ’n Fun Fly-In, had departed California late in the day and spent the first night in Carlsbad, N.M. The following day, I flew the first leg from Carlsbad to Lampasas, Texas, on a VFR flight plan. I had been briefed that President Bush was visiting Fort Hood, Texas, that day and that there was a temporary flight restriction (TFR) in effect surrounding Fort Hood until 3:15 p.m. local.
On the way to Lampasas, I checked with Flight Service on the status of the TFR and was advised again that the TFR was in effect until 3:15 local. The airspace around Lampasas wasn’t closed, but only airplanes on VFR or IFR flight plans were being allowed into the area prior to 3:15. I closed my flight plan upon landing at Lampasas at 2:45, refueled and elected to wait on the ground and have lunch until after the TFR expired. While I was there, I asked the airport operator if he had a copy of the NOTAM. He did and he showed it to me. The expiration was noted as 3:15 p.m. local time.
Accordingly, at 3:45, I fired up the Mooney, taxied out and departed Lampasas for Baton Rouge, La. As I climbed out, I was careful to stay well south of the normal restricted areas associated with Fort Hood, R6302A, B and C. My route of flight was also well south of President Bush’s Crawford, Texas, prohibited area, P-49, which was inactive since the TFR had been cancelled at 3:15—or so I thought.
Climbing through 5,500 feet for 7,500 feet, I saw an F-16 arcing across in front of me and turning right about a mile ahead. Hmm, I thought, and double-checked both the Garmin and ARNAV GPSs to make certain that I was nowhere near either P-49 or any of the R6302 areas.
In addition to the Garmin 430’s moving map, I was using a new copy of Air Chart’s Aviation Topographic Atlas, 2005 to 2006 edition, which I had received only two days before leaving on the trip. I checked my watch again, and it was nearly 4 p.m., a full 45 minutes after the TFR had expired.
About that time, the F-16 arced by again, this time, only about ½-mile ahead and firing a dozen or so flares across my path as he transitioned from lower left to upper right. Something was not right.
I dialed the Garmin to 121.5 and said, “Air Force F-16, this is Mooney 3309K. What’s the problem?”
I received an answer almost immediately: “Mooney, this is Fort Hood approach. You’re in prohibited airspace. Go to 134.6, make an immediate 180-degree right turn and leave the area on a heading of 270.”
I wasn’t about to argue the point. I wrapped the Mooney over to 60 degrees, reversed course and changed frequency. The first thing I heard on the radio after I had stabilized on my new westerly heading was “Fort Hood, Air Force One is out of 8,000 for FL370.”
“Roger, Air Force One. Go to center on 129.65. Good day.”
Uh-oh. The F-16 blazed by on my left and below, waggled his wings, plugged in the burner and disappeared straight up.
Next, I heard, “Mooney 3309K, the Secret Service instructs you to land at Killeen, Texas. They want to talk to you, and you’re not to leave the airplane until they arrive.”
“Roger that, Fort Hood,” I said. “We’re diverting to Killeen.”
I tuned in the recorded AWOS at Skylark Airport in Killeen and was advised again that the “TFR will expire at 1515 local time.” By this time, it was 4:10 p.m., 1610 in military time, nearly a full hour after the TFR was to have expired.
As I landed, I saw an Army Blackhawk helicopter sitting on the ramp, gulped a few times, turned off the active and taxied toward it. Apparently, it had nothing to do with me, as the three khaki-clad men standing nearby motioned me away and toward the transient ramp.
Shortly after I pulled up in front of the FBO and shut down, a black government sedan drove out onto the ramp and two men in black got out and came over to the Mooney. They were courteous and instructed my wife and me to get out of the airplane. We did as we were asked, and after introductions all around, the lead Secret Service agent asked if I knew why I had been instructed to land.
I answered honestly that I had no idea, since the TFR had expired a full hour before. He knew nothing about TFRs or airspace, only that he was to investigate an alleged TFR incursion that had caused someone to scramble an F-16. He asked all the obvious questions—where was I coming from, where was I going, why was I flying adjacent to Fort Hood at that particular time, etc.—and I answered that I was complying with every regulation I knew of and that no less than four sources had suggested that the TFR had expired a full hour before the alleged incursion.
All the while, I was thinking that no matter if I was right, I could wind up being detained for quite a while if the Secret Service decided that I was a bad guy. Just as with the U.S. Customs Service, the Secret Service has virtually unlimited power, and if they decide to detain you without charges, they can do so.
Fortunately, it never came to that. He made a few cell phone calls and determined that someone (fortunately not me) had goofed. He acknowledged that the NOTAM had stipulated an expiration at 3:15 p.m. local and that my “incursion” hadn’t occurred until 4 p.m. Throughout the interview, he was courteous and friendly, and after his third phone call, he even acknowledged, “Well, you may not have done anything wrong after all.”
The president had been running late, visiting wounded soldiers and their dependents at the Fort Hood hospital, and he had departed quite a bit behind schedule. Finally, after a half-hour of discussion on the ground in Killeen, the Secret Service agent called his supervisor and told him, “The pilot is totally cooperative, and he apparently was operating on the best information that was available.”
He folded up the phone and told us that we were free to go. I asked him if there would be any ramifications of the incident, and he said that there had been no violation, so that would be the end of it.
Fortunately, the rest of my trip was uneventful. We arrived in Lakeland, Fla., the following day, and I dropped by the FAA building to ask an inspector about the incident.
He smiled and said, “Yes, that happens all the time. The schedule gets screwed up, and there’s no way to make certain that everyone has the message. Don’t worry about it.” Why do I still worry about it?
Bill Cox is entering his third decade as a senior contributor to Plane & Pilot® and provides consulting for media, entertainment and aviation concerns worldwide.
E-mail him at email@example.com.