Plane & Pilot
Saturday, October 1, 2005

Busting TFRs

Pilots continue to fly into restricted airspace. Are the feds losing their patience?

Once upon a time, you could pull the airplane out of the hangar, fire up the engine, point it into the wind and fly. Wherever you want, whenever you wanted. As time went on, rules and procedures began to be as much a part of a pilot’s skills as the ability to fly with a stick and rudder." />

Reportedly, Sheaffer flew a more southern course to avoid Camp David, but didn’t realize that he was headed directly to the middle of Washington, D.C. He also reportedly didn’t use a GPS. Whatever can be said about his pilotage, there’s no mistake that he didn’t avoid any of the sensitive airspace in the area or the national acclaim that comes with such a visible violation. The threat he unknowingly faced was a possible shootdown. Intercepting fighters had air-to-air missiles, but no order to shoot was given or considered. Purportedly, the U.S. Secret Service guards the White House with Stinger surface-to-air missiles. Sheaffer unwittingly risked death to shave a few miles off of his cross-country. In the end, the FAA revoked his licenses under emergency authority.

Another example is the pilot who was forced to land in 2004 when he inadvertently flew through a VIP TFR that had been activated while he was airborne. In Sheaffer’s case and this one, the pilots had complied with the Part 91 directive that “each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with all available information concerning that flight.” The regulation doesn’t specifically state that you should check NOTAMS or TFRs, but doing so has become a de facto requirement of 91.103.

Still another pilot took off on a beautiful VFR day for a flight around the patch. Unbeknownst to him, a hazard TFR that came within a mile of his airport had been set up. Running afoul of the somewhat capricious TFR system is a very real problem affecting every pilot flying today. Perhaps we should be grateful that staying out of trouble still rests with the pilot in command. The alternative would probably mean grounding altogether.

It’s not hard to understand why lawmakers are becoming frustrated with pilots, especially those intruding into the restricted airspace surrounding Washington, D.C. There is legislation before the United States Senate that calls for a $100,000 fine, the confiscation of the aircraft and a five-year loss of flying privileges for “whoever negligently flies an aircraft in a manner that violates Washington, D.C.,…or causes the evacuation of a federal building or any other public property.” In the House of Representatives, another bill seeks to impose a $10,000 to $100,000 fine and a two- to five-year certificate suspension. Clearly the government is losing its patience.

How we stay out of the gristmill of FAA enforcement action requires an application of some old as well as new pilot skills. Perhaps the easiest solution, if money is not an object, is to install weather datalink capability in the cockpit that includes real-time TFR notification. That way, you can see the pop-up TFRs as they become a factor to your flight path. The technological solution isn’t always available. As a matter of fact, reliance on technology may be at the heart of a significant number of navigational errors.


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