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Flying The Presidential TFR

Aviate, navigate, communicate? Well, yes, but if you plan to penetrate a Presidential TFR, those happen only after find, phone, copy, file.

Find the NOTAM. Phone TSA at least 24 hours in advance. Copy your confirmation number. File a flight plan, possibly with an intermediate stop.

The milk run for Mrs. Levinson and me is between KBED, in the Boston suburbs where we live most of the year, and KMVY on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, where we wish we lived most of the year. Bill Clinton spent six of his eight summers as President on Martha’s Vineyard, but that was before 9/11 and life was simpler. He enjoyed a 3 nautical mile no-fly zone wherever he went, and his arrival or departure from the small Martha’s Vineyard airport would briefly shut down other airport operations, but it wasn’t a big deal. 9/11 changed all that, and as Barack Obama spent seven of his eight Presidential summers on Martha’s Vineyard, we locals have had a lot more Secret Service facetime than most.

Whenever President Obama was spending time on Martha’s Vineyard, the pilots and passengers of GA planes seeking to come and go to the vacation mecca were put through a security gauntlet that made the TSA line at the airports look like a stroll in the park.

VIP TFR Basics

The TFR has two rings to keep the President safe without completely hogtying air traffic. Both extend to 17,999 feet msl, and as overlying airspace is Class A, the entire column is controlled. The larger ring extends from the 10nm diameter core out to 30nm. Small exceptions are often made in the outer perimeter, as the KMVY TFR excludes Plymouth airport. Operations in the outer TFR ring require an active flight plan, IFR or VFR. Even if VFR, though, “loitering” isn’t allowed, which means pretty much everything is prohibited except point-to-point travel. Practice approaches and other training, seaplane operations, banner towing, sightseeing and similar activities aren’t allowed.

The inner ring is another place altogether. Except for scheduled commercial traffic, which has to clear TSA anyway, and emergency flights, which are expedited even in the TFR, all other traffic must comply with an unaccustomed and strict choreography. Flights are permitted only directly to and from the primary airport. That means that the Vineyard’s only other public airport, Katama (1B2), a grass field with a terrific restaurant and a beach-y vibe, is essentially shut down for the President’s long vacation.

Any aircraft in the 10nm core must be on a flight plan, of course, but must also be flown by a pilot known to TSA and Secret Service, and must be searched by TSA immediately before takeoff; so all flights must originate from a TSA-manned “Gateway Airport.” For Martha’s Vineyard, that means KMVY itself for flights outbound; or White Plains (HPN), Providence (PVD) or Hyannis (HYA) for inbound trips. If you’re starting out somewhere else, you must first land at a gateway airport to meet with TSA. Timing is important. You’ll have an appointment and are required to wait in your aircraft on the ramp until they’re ready for you.

Finally, you get to fly into the TFR, but even that process may be a little unusual. Something they don’t talk about is that air-traffic control knows where the President happens to be any moment and aircraft are kept away from that airspace. Makes for some interesting vectors. The prevailing southwesterly winds mean that the usual leg to MVY after being searched at Hyannis is a 22nm, very busy eight- to nine-minute linear hop on a heading of 236 from runway 24 at KHYA to runway 24 at KMVY. On one of my trips this year I was switched to tower 12nm out.

“1WB, are you familiar with the Jaws Bridge.”

“Yes, I am.”

“Well, thank heaven for that. I can’t tell you how tired I am of explaining it. 1WB, remain south of the Jaws Bridge until passing it inbound, then cleared to land runway 24.”

“1WB will fly south of the Jaws Bridge. Tower, might someone be golfing?”

After a pause, “That’s affirmative.”

Why this vigorous jog to the south? The Farm Neck Golf Course is about 3nm off the runway 24 threshold on the straight-in course and it seems that Presidents play a lot of golf on vacation. As for the bridge, it’s unnamed on the sectional and properly called the American Legion Memorial Bridge, but since Steven Spielberg filmed a particularly suspenseful scene there in 1975, it has been known to locals as the Jaws Bridge.

The protected airspace is watched closely, and unauthorized activities at least theoretically result quickly in a radio call and possibly even fighter jet interception. This year, according to airport scuttlebutt and The Vineyard Gazette, a Skyhawk somehow flew right over the President’s rental home before being intercepted on the other side of the TFR by two F15s and a Coast Guard MH 65 helicopter. It was escorted to Nantucket airport where the pilot was rendered unhappy. A pilot I interviewed mused, “With all the millions they spend on this, they couldn’t catch a Skyhawk?”

Most of the year, Martha’s Vineyard is an easy, short jaunt from several major east coast metropolitan areas, with low-anxiety arrival and landing procedures. Not so when the president is on the island for a weeklong stay. Pilots planning to fly in then should be prepared in advance.

Flying The TFR: Evolution

In 2008, the TFR didn’t overlap with my vacation, so we avoided the hassle altogether. In 2009, again no overlap. Our vacation ended Sunday, August 23, and the TFR was to start 10:30 Monday morning. No problem, I thought, but I was wrong. On the Sunday of our departure, Hurricane Bill was out in the Atlantic holding a cold front off our weather map, but near flight time the front lurched east and a line of storms formed right across our path. We could have flown Monday morning, but the forecast called for dense fog right up to the TFR. We were stuck between the weather and the President. We managed to book a late Sunday ferry and I returned by ferry after the President was gone to pay two weeks of ramp fees and collect my Mooney.

In August 2010, I took my first TFR flight. In those days, we had to use a clunky and unpleasant government website to request a waiver authorization, including a full passenger and crew manifest with passport numbers for all. It was a lot like the current EAPIS process. Eventually, a multipage authorization appeared by email and the drill was to carry the four-page printout onboard. I then filed a flight plan, activated the waiver, and finally—almost an afterthought—flew.

We landed at Hyannis on time and were instructed to taxi to the TSA area and wait in the aircraft for officials to watch us disembark, unload, and bring everything to the TSA hangar where we were identified and searched. The personal search included wanding and a pat-down. It worked pretty well for the dog who sees a pat-down as a good thing. Baggage was searched thoroughly. TSA personnel were pleasant and it wasn’t a bad experience. They need a lot of extra TSA staff for these events, and I’ve met agents from Atlanta, San Antonio and many other places who fly in to make the President’s vacation possible.

The process of departing from a presidential TFR is even more time consuming and demanding than arriving at the airport. The TSA has set up temporary structures to deal with the process, one that, our writer reports, involves a great deal of sitting and waiting, along with far too much loading and unloading of your airplane’s contents.

We were taken back to the airplane, but before loading up, the aircraft was searched—every compartment. Finally, we loaded up again, and were then instructed to do absolutely nothing except taxi to the runway and takeoff. The doors weren’t to be opened and we were watched the whole way.

In my logbook I wrote “Hyannis Tower guy was using nonstandard phrasing and had an attitude.” Actually, over the years, most people have had at least a little attitude with this process—it’s unpleasant and we’re not used to these kinds of restrictions to GA flight in the United States. At KMVY, we had again to wait in the plane until it could be inspected and we could be brought to the FBO to check in. Door to door time for us by car is three and a half to four hours. By aircraft, it averages 1:45. With the TFR back then, it was four hours.

I’ve flown the Martha’s Vineyard TFR several times each year from 2010 forward, and the process became smoother and better steadily until 2015. That year was so smooth that the government decreased funding for 2016, cut TSA staff and sent GA traffic a small, but solid step back into the swamp of inefficiency.

These days, AOPA and local airports send emails to warn potentially affected pilots that the TFR is coming weeks ahead, even before the dates are finalized. They push out the NOTAM. The clunky government website is gone. We now make TSA screening reservations by calling a local telephone number. They only need 24 hours’ notice and they try to accommodate shorter notice when issues such as weather arise to scramble plans. Phone calls are answered quickly by somebody who’s knowledgeable and polite. They want to know your name and tail number along with numbers of males, females and pets. They give you a confirmation number and each person must bring photo ID.

In 2016, I got to the TSA tent for my first flight on their second day with my bags ready for the 2015 process only to find confusion. After confirming my ID, they just looked at me until finally I asked what to do next. They seemed surprised. I was told to put my bags back into the car and go to the FBO to get a line guy to unlock the gate so I could drive to my hangar, load the aircraft, start it up and taxi to TSA where I would shut down the aircraft, unload everything under supervision and carry all my bags to the very same TSA tent I had just visited. The entire process seemed to me not only time-consuming and unpleasant, but less secure. It also put another start-stop cycle on my engine, something we all try to avoid if we’re responsible for our own maintenance costs. I wasn’t happy.

Six days later, when next I got to the TSA tent to leave the island, the person behind the desk started explaining a different process and I remember looking at the TSA people in disbelief, at which point Tim came over to see what the problem was. Tim turned out to be a Secret Service agent from Atlanta and who evidently thought I was showing more than a little attitude, and I thought he was, but I guess we both quietly decided not to escalate.

It turned out that the process from the week before wasn’t authorized, and although he had been on duty that day, he must have stepped away when I came through because he was unaware of what happened. The proper process was fractionally more convenient for me and clearly more secure. They searched my bags during that initial screening and held onto them while I repositioned the aircraft. Only problem: On my return, my bags were missing. By chance, I spotted them at the bottom of a heavily laden luggage cart being wheeled to somebody’s private jet to the Rockies. Disaster averted, but not by much.

My final flight off the island of this year was as good as it could be. As I checked in, I heard a warm greeting from behind me, “Hey, Doc!” That was Tim. I happened to be leaving at a quiet time and he remembered that I wasn’t happy about the cycles being put on my engine, so he had me and my bags searched and then offered to take me personally to my aircraft in the hangar to clear me without further kerfuffle. These guys are doing the best they can and it’s appreciated.

Local Impacts

Ann Crook took over as the Martha’s Vineyard Airport administrator in early May 2016, and knew it wouldn’t be a cake walk. Martha’s Vineyard attracts not only Presidents, but other celebrities, and, of course, each comes with challenges. Moreover, administrative mayhem and even hooliganism at the airport had been so bad for the prior few years that you could read salacious details in the Vineyard Gazette on a regular basis. Ann was the perfect person for the job. It’s as hard to imagine slipping something by her as it is hard to imagine her reaching for the wrong bottle off the shelf. Ann is articulate, smart, enthusiastic and impeccably organized.

Ann got her first call from the Secret Service about the President’s vacation within weeks of taking the job, and after that worked steadily with them, as well as with National Guard, Coast Guard, Marines, White House, TSA and probably others I forgot. When I spoke to her as the TFR was in progress, Ann admitted to hearing a little grumbling from a few pilots, but noted even those complaints were tempered by pride in the Presidential visit.

She spoke about decreased general aviation operations during the TFR leading to decreased revenue even as expenses were up for special arrangements. She said, though, that the airport maintains a good relationship with the FAA and they help out as possible. Staffing, she said, was challenging, but her people were generous with their time and energy. She mentioned obliquely there’s always some wear and tear on the airport during TFR operations, and I later heard what she might have been talking about. Apparently, the runway shoulders are soft and have been of concern for some time. A C-17 transport, not the kind of aircraft we usually see around here, came to the island in advance of the President as part of a dress rehearsal and left chunks of asphalt so large they had to send a truck with shovels to make the runway safe again.

Local pilots have their own stories to tell, and, as they weren’t entirely positive, and as the government is, well, the government, no one was willing to speak for attribution. A commercial pilot who frequently flies celebrities to and from the island told me about being cleared at White Plains for the KMVY leg a year or two ago. The single celebrity on that particular flight was someone he knew well, coming for some serious fishing. TSA, with a look of concern, took the pilot aside and whispered that the passenger had a very long and angry-looking serrated knife in his baggage. The pilot asked TSA what they wanted to do about that—wondering if they somehow thought this person would use the knife to kill the pilot, figure out how to land the airplane and then use the same knife to attack the President. They put the knife in a compartment inaccessible from the cabin.

That same pilot landed in Hyannis to clear TSA for an inbound flight this year and found a large jet in front of him that had come directly from an estate sale with all kinds of really large items, every single one of which needed to be offloaded, inspected and then reloaded.

Most of all, local pilots tell the story of lost revenue. One estimated that Katama airport does 30% of its annual business in July, 60% in August and 10% in all of the other months together. Taking 15 or 16 days with two to three weekends off the August calendar is a financial disaster. Banner towing on the Cape and Islands gone. Sightseeing flights gone and charter flights down. Lots of business gone or much decreased at the season’s peak in a seasonal economy. Even so, they’re quick to mention the honor of hosting Presidential visits, and they admit the cachet might at least conceivably increase overall island business to some extent over the years.


To U.S. Presidents, Past, Present And Future

In my 30 years of medical practice, patients have been generally so appreciative and polite that it’s hard for me to find out if there are problems with my practice. I can’t fix what I don’t know about. Despite all the flak you get as President, I suspect people don’t offer much in the way of constructive criticism, either. Therefore, I will.

First, to President Obama personally: Now that you’re no longer President and can visit the island without mangling our airspace, we hope that you’ll come back as President Clinton has sometimes done. We loved having you here and will love it even more without the hassle factor.

To U.S. Presidents, present and future: Pilots I interviewed suggest that vacation is a wonderful time for new experiences. They understand that Camp David is a terrific place, and one pilot in particular thought perhaps part of the deal should be that the President always and only vacations there. That seems a little harsh and we love the idea that you might visit Martha’s Vineyard for summer vacation, but we suggest that you enrich your vacation life by coming here only one summer during your presidency, or maybe two summers if you get a second term.

One other thing. When you do come to Martha’s Vineyard or elsewhere, please remember the men and women who work the flight line. When you’re here they have to work extra-hard to support your security arrangements, but they make less money because business and tips are down a lot. I heard no grumbling from any of our linepeople, none at all. But several pilots spoke for them and felt deeply their contribution to your vacation needs to be appreciated. Please shake all their hands when you arrive, and maybe even arrange a BBQ for them on the field—with you dropping in, of course.


John Levinson, MD, PhD, practices and teaches Cardiology and Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston. An instrument-rated private pilot, he uses his Mooney for business and personal transportation, flying mostly with his non-pilot wife whose very different perspective adds greatly to all he sees and writes.

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