Last week's story on Senator James Inhofe's encounter with a closed runway generated quite a bit of mail, including one note from a reader asking why I hadn't commented on it in this blog. Shouldn't the senator be reminded, he asked, that most of us do indeed check NOTAMs before every flight? Okay, consider him reminded.
I was discussing this with a friend over the weekend who informed me that not only did he not check NOTAMs before every flight, he didn't think he knew any pilots who did. What continues to amaze me about this pilot thing is how many different universes seem to exist. In the crowd I run in, I would say most pilots do check the NOTAMs file before departing, even for a local flight. Here in Florida, where a weather briefing is superfluous, NOTAMs are the only thing I check. I do that every time I fly.
I'm sure I've missed a time or two, but not by intent. I nearly blundered into a presidential TFR when George Bush was down here campaigning in 2004. I had been flying short flights all week collecting some data for vacuum pump trials. On the third or fourth day, I got to the hangar, preflighted and was ready to launch on a perfectly clear day when I realized I hadn't briefed. I almost blew it off, but decided to just do a quick NOTAMs and TFR check. Good thing. There was a Presidential TFR a few miles south of the airport and I'd have flown right into it.
For me, NOTAMs checks are more for appearances than actual safety. As Inhofe actually did, I don't want to fly into a closed airport or runway without knowing about it in advance. The information is easily available and to me, it's indefensibly irresponsible not to get it before you discover it by surprise. When that happens and it escalates into construction workers scurrying for cover as you attempt to land, it makes us all look like morons. Then to excuse it by saying no one checks NOTAMs just makes it worse.
Senator Inhofe, a pilot of long experience, has been a true friend to general aviation. Anyone can make a mistake and he apparently did. If something like this ever happens to you, the ready response should be, "I checked NOTAMs. I must have missed it." Whether you did or you didn't will be your little secret. But whatever you share with the world should make you sound like you have a brain. We'll all be the better for it.