My student was from England. The first hop of the day was normal: from calling ATIS to flying the flight, nothing unusual. The second hop, just after noon, however, was definitely not normal: Hidden in the NOTAM language of the ATIS was the usual verbiage that I only half listen to. Obviously a mistake. This time, it was something about, "Closed to VFR…yada yada…1730 hours local...yada yada…until mumble mumble hours…Sunday yada yada." Hmmm! I assumed they were doing some runway resurfacing or something at night. Boy, was I ever wrong!
I started to taxi when I remembered part of what the ATIS said. It said the shutdown started that evening, and the end date was three days away! Wait a minute! I replayed the ATIS. Whoa! It said the airport would be closed to VFR traffic from 5:30 that afternoon and wouldn't open until 11 a.m., three days away. Zowie! Turns out that the vice president was attending a fund-raiser not far away, and there would be no VFR flying until he left. Like it or not, we were officially stuck in TFR hell.
The NOTAM caught me totally by surprise and the ground control guys, too. None of us knew it was coming. I scurried around on the phone trying to locate hangar space on another airport, so my student wouldn't waste two-and-a-half days, but there just wasn't enough time to make it happen. So, we sat around on our hands, him having spent a lot of money to get here from England, me losing money every minute we were on the ground. More important, his time window to learn the intricacies of flying my little airplane so he could fly his own when he got home, was rapidly closing, and he was going to have to leave. This was just not right, and it got me thinking about the TFR thing in general.
First, to be perfectly honest, other than being grounded twice by TFRs (the other one gave us warning) and having to work around them for desert fires, I know nothing about them other than their effect on local flight operations. I'm assuming they exist to create a protective dome over events, activities and persons of interest. In theory, this is a logical thought, but it has some unintended consequences. Let's look at this specific TFR.
It was centered on the vice president, who happened to be staying just a couple of miles from KSDL, so the TFR area overlapped us. I'm assuming the purpose of TFRs, in general, is to eliminate the little airplane threat, although I'm not certain what that threat may be. However, this TFR didn't touch a much busier airport that was only a couple miles farther away. Were they afraid that a C-152 loaded with cherry bombs was going to take off from our airport because we were closest, but not the other field?
Also, why ground VFR traffic only? Does that mean that suicidal bad guys don't know how to file an IFR flight plan? I'm pretty sure that's not the case. Plus, if I were willing to fudge a few facts, I could file a fraudulent IFR flight plan even for my little biplane and take off with the big guys. Of course, when off the ground, I don't know what I'd do. And I'm not sure what kind of threat I'd represent.
When we have a forest or desert fire here, I can fully understand the purpose of a TFR. Those encircle the area of operations for the fire-fighting birds (which is pretty impressive to watch, by the way!). They keep the air sterile so the air boss doesn't have to worry about lookie-loos or transiting traffic while he's calling in slurry bombers. Was there a bevy of choppers hovering around the vice presidential party for two-and-a-half days, and they needed the airspace? I didn't see any, but then, I wasn't looking, either. I can also understand TFRs over things like the Super Bowl. Keeps curious flying folks away and lets Homeland Security monitor suspicious air activity over a prime terrorist target. This, of course, presupposes they can respond to a threat in time.
Maybe the purpose of TFRs, in the case of a VIP visit, is to keep press helicopters at bay in addition to keeping bug smashers on the ground? That might make some sense. So, maybe security from an attack from above isn't the primary function of the TFR.
I'm assuming there are some pretty smart dudes in charge of developing such measures, but try as I may, I can't see the logic. All the time the VP was ensconced in his little bubble of VFR serenity, there was a constant stream of IFR birds, from Cirrae (that's the plural, isn't it?) to Gulfstreams, overhead, either inbound or outbound, but apparently, because they were on a known flight plan, they weren't seen as a threat.
Come 11:05 a.m. on Sunday when the TFR was supposed to be off, I'm in my bird with my very patient student and tune into ATIS, "…VFR flight prohibited for an indefinite period..." What? A call to Ground says they haven't gotten the release yet and won't until the VP leaves the area, but he's running late. We go to lunch, I'm checking ATIS by cell phone (what an incredible convenience!), and the TFR doesn't disappear until an hour and a half later. Finally!
Incidentally, I pity anyone who flew into KSDL for an overnight stay and then found they couldn't leave for nearly two days. Maybe there was a provision for special VFR departures, but if so, I didn't hear about it.
My real complaint about pop-up TFRs is that I'm a small-time flight operator, and when I lose two-and-a-half days of flying revenue, that's significant. Then, I think about other tales I've heard like the biplane tour rides grounded on Martha's Vineyard during a presidential vacation. I'm betting the same thing hits the tour and flight training businesses in Hawaii when any of the administration is over there. Everywhere the president and VP go, a dark pall of aerial inactivity descends on local VFR flight operations, and they start losing money. This is a big deal. It's one thing to inconvenience the sport fliers. It's something entirely different to bite into a small business' revenue stream.
Obviously, there's a legitimate reason for TFRs to exist, but more thought should be given to some of them in terms of the effect they have on us little guys.