Potomac Airfield: Our Tahrir Square?

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As the world—or at least the Middle East—grows ever more restive in the face of burdensome governments, is the spark of resistance about to ignite at tiny Potomac Airport? It's a reach, I'll admit, and maybe the unseasonable Florida heat has addled my brain this evening, but such fantasies are too delicious to ignore.

Potomac Airport, you may or may not know, is one of the so-called DC-3—three airports that got caught inside the burgeoning security apparatus following the 911 attacks a decade ago. (Yes, it's been that long.) One of these is College Park Airport, where I learned to fly Cubs while I was attending the University of Maryland. That the airports have even survived is a minor miracle, given that all three (Hyde Field is the third) are inside the flight restricted zone designed to protect the White House and other important government buildings. Everyone knows, of course, that the FRZ is a farce—an annoying, overbearing and expensive one--but a farce nonetheless.

The owner and operator of Potomac, the irrepressible David Wartofksy, has asked that Executive Order 13563 be invoked to examine the FRZ and the onerous, pointless procedures that go with it. This order requires agencies to "review existing significant rules to determine if they are outmoded, ineffective, insufficient, or excessively burdensome." If ever there was a shoe that fit, this is it.

So onto the Department of Transportation's docket, Wartofsky has placed a request to review these procedures and like the rest of us, he wouldn't mind seeing them go. Although I give the odds of this happening somewhere between slim and fat chance, the timing is, arguably, perfect. The electorate is growing weary of overbearing government and excessive regulation and many—including me—have let their Congress people know it. The DOT/TSA complex has proven surprisingly resistant to attempts to throttle it back. Recall TSA's John Pistole and his defiant refusal to meet the public halfway on the issue of airport scanners.

When we lived in Connecticut, I used to fly the Mooney into Reagan Airport (then National) and hop the Metro over to the NTSB for research work. Now I do it faster and better online, but I'd sure like to have that option again, if not Reagan then College Park or Potomac. Yes, I know, you can arrange this, but it takes a secret decoder ring and procedures most of us don't have the patience or time to execute.

What a nice present this would be for GA. Of course, those quarters I used to get from the tooth fairy were nice too and about as likely to happen as the end of the FRZ. I'll let you know when the docket is up.

Comments (30)

Sigh. My intellect tells me that action begins with a dream and a thought. However we seem to have entered a time of having lots of thoughts but little-to-no voice regarding aviation (or anything else for that matter) in the gumment. Give it another decade and it might happen. Paul, thanks to you and David Wartofsky for providing a very small glimmer on the horizon.

Posted by: LOUISE C ANDERSON | March 21, 2011 4:55 AM    Report this comment

This ridiculous "Security" requirement started as a "Temporary" zone a decade ago. It is based on the uninformed notion that the whole government can be destroyed by a Cessna 150 if it is allowed to fly within 30 miles of downtown Washington D.C. The fact that no such restriction applies to vehicles with an actual history of bombing government buildings (yes, pickup trucks) is more a matter of inability to control these vehicles than a lack of desire for ultimate security for OUR bureaucrats.

Perhaps we can get the UN to review this nonsense. After all, they seem to have taken the place of congress when it comes to declaring war . . .

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | March 21, 2011 5:38 AM    Report this comment

The truth is, nothing will change with our government unless we get "our" politicians to sit up and pay attention. So get off the sidelines and start beating the drum!

Posted by: michael anderson | March 21, 2011 6:30 AM    Report this comment

David Wartofsky has been making bureaucrats uncomfortable for years with their establishment and operation of the FRZ and related fingerprinting, background checks, inspections, and interceptions. Its mostly windowdressing, and the defenders cannot answer to the simplier, and more effective, alternatives that Wartofsky has promoted. It is a laughable sliver of bad government: all this bureaucracy highlighted by the "case counting" of "thousands" of airspace intrusions, despite the fact that none were a security risk.

Credit Watofsky for his endurance and refreshing clear thought on this dumb program (and others, such as the revision of medical requirements for <6000 pound single engine aircraft in non-commercial use). Tahrir Square? Not yet. But there is hope.

Posted by: M Coster | March 21, 2011 6:44 AM    Report this comment

As long as DC politicians evacuate buildings and scream like little girls whenever a stray C172 passes overhead, there is no hope for GA. They have gone out of there way to reinforce the idea that GA is dangerous (which is ironic since commercial cause 9/11, not GA).

Unfortunately we have also have nuts in Government like Jim Inhofe who also reinforces the idea that GA is a bunch of dangerous cowboys. Bad examples justify fears.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | March 21, 2011 7:15 AM    Report this comment

Lets face it. Regulation and continued restrictions in how airplane owners and operators can conduct activity is killing the industry slowly. Over 75% of new student pilots fail to finish training. Active pilot certificates are down. The cost of just about everything aviation related is up. Having "no fly" zones is just the icing on the cake. There is no evidence that single engine GA flying is any threat to security at all. I fly into Potomac Airfield and know Dave Wartofsky. It is amazing that they survive and I give them credit for continuing to try. But the rules are killing them and there is no basis for the need other than fear. I have also yet to see any evidence that FAA regulation at the GA level really makes anything safer. Yet the cost of this regulation is staggering and every screw and bolt with a part number has to be "certified" making the cost of that part triple what it would be outside the aviation world. Moreover, that same regulation delays or even stops innovative new safety tools that we just never see. I just wish the real cost/price of all of this would be better analyzed and addressed before GA disappears! Brian

Posted by: Brian Turrisi | March 21, 2011 7:19 AM    Report this comment

Dave Watofsky for President!!! Around here we call him "The Big Cheese". I've been in DC for about a year or so but left my airplane in TX where I can still freely fly. What a shame. This is such a beautiful area in which to fly. I am fed up with Homeland Security; the very embodyment of how bad the combination of ignorance and arrogance can be. Not only can I not fly in the DC area, I also have to get poked and prodded by TSA every time I fly commercially back to TX. And I have a security clearance! What has happened to our country? Go, Dave!

Posted by: John Williams | March 21, 2011 7:24 AM    Report this comment

Warning - actual political analysis below:

There are three different "Powers" that could remove the flight restrictions around the national capitol: The White House; Congress; and the bureaucrats. None of those three have anything to gain from doing this.

The White House is dedicated to "Class Warfare" and GA represents the Upper Class the administration is against. It doesn't matter that most GA operators are so broke they worry about the price of fuel. The perception is it is "Rich Fat Cats" who fly private aircraft.

GA doesn't have the kind of money it takes to buy corrupt members of congress. Only big corporations and labor unions have enough money to contribute to reelection campaign war chests to get congress to do anything.

The bureaucracy is scared of its own shadow. A big security zone around the capitol makes bureaucrats feel better. It doesn't matter whether reality has any role here. If it reduces perceived risk then bureaucrats love it.

Bottom line: There is no chance at all of the flight restrictions being removed.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | March 21, 2011 7:45 AM    Report this comment

Paul: Unfortunately, I believe you are absolutely right! It is still ironic though that any Ryder truck can plunge right into downtown DC within a few hundred yards of the While House with no questions asked!!

Posted by: Brian Turrisi | March 21, 2011 7:48 AM    Report this comment

If we must have this silly FRZ, they could at least make the vetting requirements sensible.

I went through the process, involving a commercial trip to the area, and renting a car to travel to two more airports and wasting an entire day.

Why does this procedure involve visiting locations that you cannot fly to at all? Or until after being vetted? Catch-22 stuff.

Suggestion: Review the pilot records by mail request, or e-mail request. Same for the background check. Get fingerprinted at a location LOCAL to the pilot - - the equipment they use at DCA is all electronic! It could easily get data from anywhere in the world. Do the airport procedures course online, from home.

Of course, it would be much better if the FRZ would just go away. It would also be much better if we could fly to DCA again. Oh, the good old days.

Best of luck to Dave.

Posted by: Jack Burton | March 21, 2011 7:49 AM    Report this comment

And in the meantime, lower Manhattan (where the real devastation of 911 took place) can be flown by at 1100 feet on a VFR transponder code not talking to any government agency. I did it last week, close enough to the Goldman-Sachs builder to almost touch it. Any politician will a modicum of stones should be standing on the roof of the Capitol or the White House flipping the bird to a 152 and yelling "Bring it on". Time to end the SFRA and FRZ.

Posted by: Jerry Plante | March 21, 2011 7:55 AM    Report this comment

Paul Mulwitz nailed it. Well said.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | March 21, 2011 8:17 AM    Report this comment

Excellent analysis by Paul, and the many good posts.

Yes, as Will Rogers observed decades ago, there is nothing more permanent than a temporary government program.

"Farce" is certainly the right word. Now with the luxury of hindsight and mountains of information, it is obvious that the events of the day on 11 September, the predicate upon which this power play is founded, were staged.

Tahrir Square is a bit of a stretch, but there does seem to be some sort of awakening.

Posted by: Richard Sinnott | March 21, 2011 8:54 AM    Report this comment

The FRZ rules are a solution in search of a problem. I complained to my Congressman a while back. He's a good guy, and got back to me with the word that new regulations would allow access to DCA. The new regulations (they are not new any more), require that a private flight to DCA originate from a secure screening FBO, and that an armed security guard go along on the flight. I am not sure how that would work for a owner flown aircraft, it definitly isn't access. I have gone through the screening for access to the DC-3 airports, it was a pain and took the better part of a day (Landed at IAD, drove to DCA, and back to an FAA Office outside IAD, all in DC traffic.) I propose the Homeland Security folks incrementally open up DCA. Start with giving acress to DC-3 screened pilots, on IFR flight plans, operating aircraft weighing 12.5K or less. See how that works, assuming no one screws up, after 6 months eliminate the weight limitation, after another 6 months, allow VFR arrivals and departures, after another 6 months, evaluate whether circumstances justify continuing the current DC-3 Security Screening procedure. Two years of good behavior by participating pilots and Americans will once again be able to visit their Nation's Capitol by private aircraft. It is a simple graduated solution that would allow our domestic security resources to be concentrated on real threats instead of imagionary ones. Call or write your Congressman today!

Posted by: FORREST WARD | March 21, 2011 9:06 AM    Report this comment

Ain't going to happen. The currency in DC is power and Homeland Security is minting that in droves. The perfect DC bureaucracy - unlimited power and no accountability. They have zero incentive to reduce their power base. GA pilots don't have the political power to overcome Homeland Security.

The whole TFR thing is stupid anyway and nobody in office is going to admit they're stupid. If HS isn't dumb (or political), explain the prohibited zones over Disneyland and Disney World and stadium events. Think a 3 mile x 3,000 foot area is going to stop somebody from smacking one of the Parks? All it does is stop the banner flights. That's not securty. That's Disney calling in some political favors.

Face it, there isn't a single TFR, including FRZ, that would stop a determined terrorist.

Posted by: John Smith | March 21, 2011 10:13 AM    Report this comment

Security measures like this are a logical connundrum, very hard to argue against. All arguments about cost, burden, unnecessary, etc can be dismissed by simply saying "There have been no attacks from these airports in the last 10 years, therefore the restrictions must be working!" Very difficult to "prove" otherwise.

This is why security restrictions must be fought tooth and nail when they are proposed - once implemented, it's extremely difficult to make them go away.

Posted by: JON CARLSON | March 21, 2011 10:15 AM    Report this comment

I just returned from a wonderful flying adventure in the Carribean and South America helping a friend fly his Twin Comanche from the Los Angeles area to its new home in Buenos Aires. All the airports outside the US except Great Inagua in the Bahamas took no less than two hours to complete the entry and exit processes and pay the fees making it impossible to fly more than one leg on the journey per day. At most airports we were the only piston powered GA aircraft in view on the tarmac and the reason was obvious. Going to fly simply involved too much effort wading through the beurocracy, not to mention the fees were outrageous.

If we don't take a collective stand we will eventually face the same deterrents to enjoying the freedom of flight as South American and Carribean pilots must tolerate.

The former mayor of Chicago already attempted without success to get a GA no-fly zone imposed over his city while Michael Eisner succeeded in getting congress to impose a "Temporary?" flight restriction over his Disney holdings in California and Florida.

Let's call for an end to this nonsense in the Washington area before the sickness spreads.

Posted by: William Harper | March 21, 2011 10:53 AM    Report this comment

Bad analogy, Bertorelli. Unlike KVKX, the average Egyptian could GET to Tahrir Square to protest.

Posted by: Chip Davis | March 21, 2011 10:57 AM    Report this comment

The thing that bothers me is the disconnect between GA pilots and the TSA.

If anything, we feel more responsible and more patriotic then the average Joe or Jill. If flying my cloth covered tandem aircraft inside the beltway was a threat to anyone (hell-even politicians), I'd be the first to find somewhere else to fly. Both we and they know it is not a threat to national security. It's the three ton rental truck or 12,000 gallon gasoline truck that has access to any street in DC.

TSA needs the GA community as an alley to identifying times when the local picture looks funny, not as an adversary. Sometime in the future, some head of security will recognize the benefits of a close relationship with GA and his or her common sense will be rewarded. I'm not holding my breath.

Pat Healy Annapolis, MD

Posted by: Pat Healy | March 21, 2011 11:37 AM    Report this comment

A lot of good comments here. My thought is TSA should be completely disbanded imediately. They have done a lot of damage to aviation. Bob

Posted by: Robert Everett | March 21, 2011 1:10 PM    Report this comment

Actually, I don't think it's TSA that is the main decision maker for the FRZ (Flight Restricted Zone) over Washington DC. I think it's NORAD in Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado. They are ultimately responsible for the airspace over the US. Being the head of NORAD is a career enhancing job. It is that military officer who sees the C152 as a legitimate threat, not to Washington, but, to his or her career. The 1987 flight of Mathias Rust to Moscow's Red Square might be the biggest obstacle to rational flight rules over Washington.

Posted by: Pat Healy | March 21, 2011 2:56 PM    Report this comment

To expand on Robert Everett's comment about TSA doing a lot of damage to aviation, TSA has and is doing serious damage to the United States in general, i.e. everyone is guilty until poked and groped, prodded or radiated to be proven innocent. This country, rather, those who subscribe to the fallacy that government serves and protects them with idiotic and incompetent bureaucracies (TSA for openers) and equally mindless regulations are strangling us all to death slowly, like a man being hanged by making him walk down a flight of stairs.

Posted by: James Hanson | March 22, 2011 8:59 AM    Report this comment

I learned to fly at Potomac and worked in the avionics and mechanical shops when it was PG Airpark, before David bought it and made many needed improvements. I have followed the news concerning the 'DC3' and have been more than just concerned about the heavy hand of our ever increasing government. I certainly hope that David can somehow get things done. It is not for want of trying.

Posted by: Daniel Colburn | March 22, 2011 2:04 PM    Report this comment

I went through the vetting procedure to fly to College Park, and if it wasn't for the fact that I was already planning on being in the area, I don't know if I would have gone through with it. Living in CT, it would require either a 5+ hour drive, 4+ hour train ride, or flying commercially or GA to one of the outlying major airports. Add to the fact that it takes the better part of a day to drive around to the three different places (all conveniently located at exactly opposite ends of the Baltimore/DC area), and you're talking about something that requires at least a night's stay from the NY area. All of this so I can call up a special number to file any IFR or VFR flight plans into or out of the area to provide a PIN code associated with my name. Except for the threat of law-abiding pilots from losing their license if they try to get in to one of the DC-3 without going through this process, there is absolutely no security provided by this whole process. And it's a shame too: I've flown in to College Park several times since last summer, and it is the most convenient airport I've flown in to (aside from not being able to file my flight plan through the normal channels). The DC metro is a 10 minute walk from the airport, the price of fuel on the field is one of the cheapest in the area, and the staff of the airport couldn't be friendlier. I can't begin to think about the revenue the state of Maryland and D.C. are losing because of these procedures.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | March 22, 2011 7:01 PM    Report this comment

The terrorists and other bad boys reached exactly what they wanted: To block our airports and a lot of business people who would use it! To me it looks like a paranoia installed by the Bushadministration. Pres. Obma should lift these shikanes immediately!

Posted by: Oscar Reinhard | March 23, 2011 4:45 AM    Report this comment

I was based at Potomac from before 9/11 to 2005 and I flew a Cherokee through that time, gritting my teeth every time. As an old friend of Dave, I have supported his efforts and my analysis of the "threat" from the "deadly" GA aircraft was part of the military's decision to say GA was not the threat. Anyway, TSA has been the home of the ignorant since its inception, but the Secret Service, not known for its great aviation expertise, takes credit for the imposition of many of the flight restrictions around DC. The jump through hoops, the pilot vetting, the getting a pin number, and the calling to fly from Potomac or the other DC three airports--procedures that the controllers dislike and see as making more work in a very busy area, all so some beaurocrat can say we are doing something. As a plank holder in this process, it was stupid and counterproductive then and more so now. The FRZ restrictions should go, now and beaurocrats should be tarred, feathered and flown out of town! tarred and feathered on a

Posted by: Kenneth Nolde | March 23, 2011 8:21 AM    Report this comment

What happened with the DC-3 is only the beginning. LASP II, SD-8G, Operation Playbood, for that matter; Senator Rockefeller, D-WV. It just keeps getting worse.

See www.stoplasp.com, already discussed here for more.

Call, write, fax and speak to your elected represntatives. Stop it now before it's too late.

Posted by: John Hyle | March 23, 2011 4:20 PM    Report this comment

Well, interesting comments.

I also thought it interesting that our government, while raining cruise missles on some, and verbally berating others, quietly arrested Daniel Ellsberg and almost 100 of his cohort when they tried to do an anti-war protest at the White House (page 17 of the NYTimes)

Posted by: Edd Weninger | March 25, 2011 2:26 PM    Report this comment

Not going to happen. The Department of Homemade Security is a gravy train for huge companies like CACI, General Dynamics, tripple-dipping "retired" Generals, etc etc. . Letting any part of rationality gain hold would mean our internal, self-created terror-state built cannot withstand any move away from the US terror-riches being made by large companies and flunkies from the bureaucrats and former military who are getting rich on the deaths of a few thousand victims.

Posted by: ROBERT M SHERIDAN | April 3, 2011 12:10 AM    Report this comment

Not going to happen. The Department of Homemade Security is a gravy train for huge companies like CACI, General Dynamics, tripple-dipping "retired" Generals, etc etc. . Letting any part of rationality gain hold would mean our internal, self-created terror-state built cannot withstand any move away from the US terror-riches being made by large companies and flunkies from the bureaucrats and former military who are getting rich on the deaths of a few thousand victims.

Posted by: ROBERT M SHERIDAN | April 3, 2011 12:13 AM    Report this comment

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