EDITORIAL. General aviation would dearly love to get back to "normal" if only the powers that be would let us. The on-again, off-again nature of various restrictions have created a huge amount of distrust and lack of confidence in top-level decision-makers among operators of all types. As AVweb Executive Editor Joseph E. (Jeb) Burnside writes, much of the current situation is nothing more than "blowing snow."
November 4, 2001
Unless you've been living under a rock lately (and some
would say that's a good place to be), you're aware of the increased security
concerns manifesting themselves at various locations throughout U.S. airspace.
A bunch of people and their airplanes remain grounded, many aircraft owners
cannot fly their machines without paying a flight instructor (someone who
often is less-experienced than the owner) to ride along with them, and a large
number of airports were summarily closed by the latest NOTAMs prohibiting
flight by something called "general aviation" near various nuclear powerplants
and other facilities.
Things are far from "normal." Yes, the vast majority of aircraft in the
U.S. can more or less be used as they were before the terrorist attacks of
September 11. But a number of airports remain closed, period. At this writing,
there is no formal, announced timetable for them to reopen. The longer this
situation continues, the more likely it is that what we have right now will
become "normal" and that many of these airports including one in College
Park, Md., which holds the distinction of being in continuous operation longer
than any other airport in the world will be no more.
One problem is that the people making up these new operational and security rules
don't seem to have a clue about what they're doing, what can and cannot be
done with a "general aviation" aircraft and the unmitigated damage they are
doing to the aviation industry in the U.S. Another problem is that their
actions are made in both the name and vacuum of "national security": They're
not responsible to anyone. Not only is it not very confidence-inspiring that
those in top positions are making these uninformed decisions in this fashion,
the decisions that are made increasingly appear to be politically motivated.
Ultimately, it is becoming increasingly clear that the powers that be just
simply don't care about the damage they are doing to general aviation.
Dig up the abbreviations for the FAA's now-defunct weather-reporting system
(the one replaced by METARs and TAFs) and you'll soon realize that the current
attention being paid by the federal government to aviation security generally
and general aviation in particular is nothing more than Blowing
To be sure, the general aviation industry has made great strides since
September 11. Many areas of the country are back to "normal." But we still
have a long way to go, especially with the general media and with public
opinion, the two being pretty close to the same nowadays. And that ultimately
means playing a messy and expensive political game if the freedoms we had
before September 11 will ever be restored. More on that in a moment.
Lest there be any mistake, understand this: Some of the same restrictions
grounding non-commercial aviation in the U.S. imposed immediately after the
September 11 attacks remain in place. Airspace around Boston, New York and
Washington is the subject of "emergency air traffic rules" prohibiting GA
operations. Also prohibited are any kind of news-gathering, banner-towing,
traffic-watch or lighter-than-air flights near those three cities. The men and
women who make their living flying, maintaining or managing these kinds of
flight operations are without work. What's worse is that no one in a position
to do anything about it seems to care. Also, you can bet the price of your
next BFR that no one will lift a finger to create a financial-aid program
designed to help these people and their businesses weather this crisis, one
that was forced upon them.
Here in the Washington, D.C., area where I live, several airports are still
effectively closed to operations. No one knows when they will be reopened.
Otherwise law-abiding aircraft owners with thousands of dollars tied up in
their aircraft cannot fly them at all. Others cannot fly from the airport
they've safely and securely used for years except with a flight instructor on
board or on an IFR flight plan, yet many of these pilots are not rated or
their aircraft are not equipped to operate under IFR. The same is true at
airports near New York and Boston. At 27 other large cities throughout the
U.S., those underneath so-called Enhanced Class B airspace, operations have
mostly returned to normal, although aircraft lacking transponders must obtain
a waiver ask "Mother, may I?" each and every time they wish to operate
beneath the tiers of their local Class B airspace. Of course, "normal" is a
relative term. Just wait until someone decides that not even this kind of
benign activity should be permitted.
It's nothing more than Blowing Snow.
At the same time, last week's eruption of new NOTAMs prohibiting flight
within 10 nm of various nuclear powerplants and other facilities of strategic
importance came almost from nowhere. Just when the general aviation industry
was thinking and hoping that the new week would bring to the fore plans to
begin eliminating the last remnants of restrictions, it was hit with the
so-called "nuke NOTAM," which established Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs
essentially prohibited airspace) around close to 100 different sites
throughout the U.S. Putting aside the relative threat impacted aircraft can
pose on these facilities, the NOTAMs' impact perhaps wouldn't be so bad if the
industry had been given some warning, if the locations had been accurately
designated and if the kinds of flight operations addressed by the NOTAM were
clearly stated. Instead, the original NOTAM was so hastily assembled and so
poorly written that it had to be supplemented later in the week
by yet another one. Maddeningly, even the subsequent "re-write" failed to
provide the kind of precision chartmakers and pilots need to have when
considering their navigation needs and the consequences of inadvertently
straying into one of these TFRs. Perhaps most important, though, the NOTAMs
were directed at "general aviation." There's only one small problem here: What
is "general aviation"?
Part 1 of the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) defines a bunch of stuff.
Other Parts define other stuff, including non-commercial operations,
agricultural operations, ultralight operations, rotorcraft external-load
operations, on-demand commercial operations, and scheduled operations, to name
a few. Nowhere in the FARs is the term "general aviation" defined. Yes, it's
in the Aeronautical Information Manual's (AIM) Pilot/Controller Glossary, but the AIM is not a regulatory
document. It says so.
Clearly, no one in the FAA with half a clue would write such a NOTAM: Say
what you will about the FAA and its support of and responsiveness toward GA
and other operators, at least its rule-writers know which Part of the FARs to
reference when they want to address a specific type of flight operation. They
also know that operators especially operators threatened with deadly force
for transiting one of these TFRs need accurate information on where they
are. Saying that a specific nuclear facility is, for example, "20 miles SSW of
Raleigh-Durham, N.C.," isn't the kind of accurate, definitive navigation data
one needs to reliably avoid such an area. Why? Well, for one thing, there's no
such location as Raleigh-Durham, N.C. There's Raleigh. There's Durham. There's
the Raleigh-Durham International Airport, but no Raleigh-Durham. You'd think
the NOTAM would reference a major airport if that's the point from which
distance and direction was being measured. Many of the listed sites are not
identified on aeronautical charts, either.
It's nothing more than Blowing Snow.
One conclusion that can be drawn from such dismal efforts at regulating
flight operations is that the FAA isn't the one in charge. Yet, whoever is in
charge has a duty to write the rules NOTAMs, in the case in a clear,
unambiguous fashion. In this instance, they should have more clearly defined
the types of flight operations affected Part 91, Part 135, etc. instead
of the amateurish use of the term "general aviation." If they can't write the
rules in such a fashion, then they either need to turn over that task to
someone who knows how or actively seek their assistance. That's apparently not
Yes, I'm aware that some are concerned that the act of specifying the exact
latitude and longitude of these facilities may be giving away too much
information to the people someone is trying to keep away from these locations.
But, do the powers that be really think that publishing only these
facilities' general location will prevent someone from doing the additional
research needed to learn an accurate location? Instead, the result is the
worst possible outcome: Not only do law-abiding aircraft operators not have
the information they need to safely, reliably and accurately avoid these
areas, any terrorist looking for a list of facilities the U.S. government
believes hold the potential for nuclear terrorism can have a
government-approved list for the price of a DUAT briefing.
Another conclusion to be drawn is that whomever is writing these NOTAMs
simply doesn't understand the need for accuracy and the need to reliably
inform aircraft operators of the locations they are to avoid. Either they
don't know that this need exists, they aren't listening to those who do or
they don't care. In any event, the outcome is confusion, disrespect
(apparently flowing from those who are writing these NOTAMs to operators and
most assuredly flowing back to them from the field), distrust on these and
other, unrelated matters and the overwhelming feeling that whoever is in
charge doesn't know what they're doing.
So, just when the industry thought and hoped that the many weeks of effort
to disseminate, understand and comply with virtually countless "dueling
NOTAMs" were over, just when it appeared that further relaxations of these
restrictions would be forthcoming, and just when it appeared that the many
strenuous efforts industry representatives had made to establish a dialogue
with those making these decisions the National Security Council were
bearing fruit, just then comes these new nuke NOTAMs. It's one step forward;
two steps backwards. We deserve better. We're the good guys, remember?
It's nothing more than Blowing Snow.
I can't take credit for labeling this nonsense "voodoo security." That goes
to GAMI's George Braly, who coined the term in an email a few days ago. The
point is that in the eight weeks since September 11, not a lot of any real
substance has been done to improve aviation security in the U.S. Instead, the
steps that have been taken have been ineffective, "feel-good" measures
designed mainly to eliminate perceived threats from GA operations the
decision-makers don't understand (and won't take the time to understand) and
to present to the general media and to the general public the idea that
"something" is being done to enhance their security (and, not coincidentally,
help preserve the decision-makers' jobs). Yet, as countless press reports have
related, people are still managing to go through airport security with real
and possible weapons, the contents of most checked baggage is not scanned,
checked bags are not matched to passengers, etc. In the meantime, nail
clippers are being confiscated from flight crew (who nonetheless have access
to crash axes) and some duty-free purchases are not allowed on board.
Amazingly, not even close to all aircraft operating in scheduled service have
reinforced cockpit doors, although many of them do have some kind of structure
added to strengthen them.
Another example is right here in my backyard, at Washington National
Airport (DCA). In addition to heightened airside security, authorities have
instituted a "code-word" arrangement whereby all aircraft inbound to DCA must
transmit the "word of the day" before reaching a certain point in their
approach. Or else. The "word of the day" is given to each DCA-bound flight
crew via secure means and then transmitted to approach controllers over an
open ATC frequency. It is used only for inbound aircraft, not flights
originating at DCA.
What's wrong with this? Two things come to mind: First, any teenager (or
anyone of more sinister intent) with a scanner or a handheld comm radio can
figure out, in less than 30 minutes, the day's code word. Second, the word is
not used for departing traffic, so exactly half of the flights operating to
and from DCA are not secured in this manner. I can only guess at the rationale
for these decisions. I cannot guess why a single word is used each day versus
different words for different hours or different carriers or even different
Possibly, somebody, somewhere, decided that DCA is so secure now (yeah,
right...) that departing aircraft are ipso facto not a threat. Really?
Consider this: By definition, aircraft landing at DCA are not fully loaded
with fuel. They can certainly be used as guided cruise missiles, but the
damage they could cause is greatly reduced. On the other hand, aircraft
departing DCA are, again by definition, fully fueled for their planned flight,
plus reserves. Any transport-category airplane departing DCA's Runway 1
remember, there's no code-word presently required for departing flights is
something like 30 seconds from being driven into the White House, the Capitol
or some other important building at speeds far in excess of 200 knots and with
a full fuel load.
It's nothing more than Blowing Snow.
Finally, I come back to the so-called "nuke NOTAMs." These two NOTAMs
established TFRs prohibiting flight by general aviation operators within a
10-nm radius of various nuclear power plants, the strategic petroleum reserve
and other locations of a national security interest from the surface to 18,000
feet MSL. As discussed above, it's not at all clear what constitutes a
"general aviation" aircraft operation. It's even less clear where these
locations are and how operators are supposed to avoid them. Most important,
however, it's not at all clear what these NOTAMs were trying to prevent. The
only good thing that can be said about the nuke NOTAMs is that they came with
an expiration date and time.
On one hand, it would certainly be a "bad thing" if something happened to a
nuclear power plant. Conceivably, a breach of the reactor's containment
structure and systems could release some quantity of radioactivity into the
environment. A more severe occurrence could conceivably contaminate the
immediate area and, perhaps, the area downwind from the site. A worst-case
scenario could involve a runaway reactor and failure of its containment. This
could mean contaminating the site, the groundwater and the surrounding area.
That's certainly something we should try to avoid.
On the other hand, these facilities are designed and built with safety in
mind that's one reason they are so expensive and a direct result of their
controversial nature. Perhaps depending on the facility, it's been reported
that the structures surrounding the reactors at nuclear powerplants are
designed to withstand the impact of a fully-loaded Boeing 707 or 747. The
point is that, regardless which model of Boeing or even Airbus one might smash
into them, these containment vessels are certainly stout structures, built to
withstand earthquakes, fires, hurricanes and other phenomena, natural and
So, what damage could the typical "general aviation" aircraft do to one of
them or any other structure, for that matter? AVweb Columnist John
Deakin tackled this subject a few weeks ago in
one of his
columns. In addition to an excellent chart graphically depicting the
relative kinetic energy of various aircraft types at various speeds, he
provided the table below:
Based on this table and even presuming you can get a Bonanza up to 300
knots (not with me in it...), the difference in the relative threats posed by
the Bonanza at 3,000 pounds, the B-25 or any other aircraft weighing 20,000
pounds, and the two Boeing products is stark. So is the relative threat to a
nuclear reactor containment building (or any other structure, for that matter)
posed by a Bonanza, a bomber or a Boeing. So why was "general aviation" the
target of this NOTAM? What was the federal government trying to achieve?
The only answer I can muster up is this: Someone, somewhere suddenly became
aware of a threat against nuclear facilities and/or suddenly decided that the
possibility of someone flying an airplane into one of them was too great. So
they did something. Never mind that a legally-defined cylinder of prohibited
airspace by itself could not prevent a determined person from doing major
damage to a nuke facility. Never mind that the segment of the aviation
industry addressed by the NOTAM presents a relatively miniscule,
down-in-the-noise-level threat. Never mind that the real threat to one of
these facilities would be from a larger, faster-moving aircraft (they're all
"secure" now, anyway, right?) with the kinetic energy to do real damage. Never
mind that their actions were not only harmful to an industry still struggling
to recover, their actions also undermined again what little remaining
confidence the GA industry has in the federal government and both the
reasonableness and validity of its actions.
Instead, "somebody" decided that something had to be done. Rather than sit
down and take the time and effort to think through the problem (a heavy,
fast-moving aircraft), the relative threat (something greater than miniscule,
but still relatively small) and how to address it (develop accurate charts of
their locations and keep large aircraft several miles from them, among other
things), "somebody" decided that doing something worthwhile wasn't (choose one
or all): feasible, cost-effective and/or politically acceptable. So they
decided to restrict that segment of aviation that not only poses the least
threat, it's also the segment that has the least political clout.
The results were announced by press
release, the media picked up on it, and the general public could once
again relax, secure in the belief that the federal government was doing its
best to protect them.
It's Voodoo Security. It's nothing more than Blowing Snow.
Since September 11, I've had several conversations with executives in
various aviation trade associations. One of the questions I've routinely asked
goes something like this: "What do the imposition and nature of these current
restrictions, plus the unwillingness of decision-makers to enter into a
dialogue with industry, say about general aviation's clout?" The routine
response is that the glass is half-full, not half-empty. Which is about the
only thing one could expect.
Whether the glass is close to full or or close to empty, it certainly is
only partially filled. The simple fact remains that GA is a relatively small
community. According to AOPA, as of December 31, 1999, only some 635,000 U.S.
pilot certificates were held. (Another 538,000 non-pilot maintenance
technicians, flight engineers, etc. were out there at the same point, but
many of these certificates are held by people who also hold a pilot
certificate.) Of the total number of civilian aircraft registered in the U.S.
at the end of 1999 some 225,000 just more than 19,000 of them are
operated by air carriers. That leaves some 206,000 privately-owned and
-operated civilian aircraft in the inventory.
By contrast, the U.S. Bureau of the Census estimates that the U.S.
population on January 1, 2000, numbered 273,828,000 people. In other words,
certificated pilots in the U.S. comprised 0.23 percent of the entire
population on that date. Another grim statistic: There are more than 15
million sport utility vehicles registered in the U.S. Put another way, pilots
and aircraft owners are overwhelmingly outnumbered among the general
population. When it comes to making a decision on how many people the federal
government wants to inconvenience, which group of citizens SUV owners or
aircraft owners do you think have the most clout, will scream the loudest
and will be listened to most closely in the court of public opinion?
The GA industry is responding to the challenge. Since September 11,
aviation's alphabet soup of trade associations have spent a lot of time on
Capitol Hill, working to educate elected officials on the restrictions GA
faced and testifying before Congress on the ways in which the industry has
been harmed. Some legislation to require reports on the remaining restrictions
was introduced and some letters were written. Nothing much has happened,
however, since the widely-reported Anthrax scares on Capitol Hill. As Congress
is now embroiled in a major fight on the aviation security bill, and as its
adjournment target of mid-November is looming large, it's not likely much more
can happen this year. That's bad.
AOPA announced on October 28 its General Aviation
Restoration Fund, something it bills as a "member-supported fund
established to better inform the American public about general aviation." That
will surely help. Other industry organizations should be developing similar
programs. Hopefully, these programs will be designed for outreach to various
opinion leaders, the media and to elected officials with the goals of
educating these people on what GA is, how it is used, who it involves and its
role in the U.S. economy. Hopefully, these programs will be effective in at
least preventing the tide of public opinion from drowning us all in Blowing
Ultimately, though, these new programs won't be enough. Instead, the rubber
will meet the road in the old-fashioned way: Individual relationships between
pilots and aircraft owners with opinion leaders at all levels. This is
politics at its most basic level. On another level, when was the last time you
made a contribution to a political action committee (PAC) concerned with
aviation? AOPA PAC is one; other associations have similar organizations
designed to judiciously make political contributions to candidates who have
been and will continue to be supportive on GA issues. These contributions
serve to help ensure access to these office-holders. If you haven't made such
a contribution lately, I'd encourage you to do so soon.
Aside from money and personal relationships, however, there is an
overwhelming need for local activism on GA's behalf. While the industry is
responding, we are a small industry, lacking in the resources to quickly do
much of great substance. That's where you come in. When was the last time you
offered a local businessman a ride in your aircraft? What about local law
enforcement or emergency service personnel? When was the last time you
participated in an airport open house or offered assistance to your airport's
managers? When was the last time you wrote a letter to the editor of your
local newspaper outlining the economic benefit of your local airport?
The point is that there is much to be done and much you can do to help
fortify and multiply the other efforts being made within the industry. Yes,
it's hard work. Yes, it's probably something you've never done before. Yes,
it's necessary if we are ever to get back to the respect, understanding and
acceptance we enjoyed before September 11. Even so, that shouldn't be our
goal. Instead, we should be working to improve things so they are better than
they were. It may sound corny, but the industry you save may be your own.
This is not Blowing Snow. It's politics, and we'd better be playing the
game better than the other guys.
The people within the federal government making these decisions don't have
the first clue about general aviation. They clearly aren't seeking technical
or operational assistance from the FAA. Instead, they are making
national-security decisions in a political environment and allowing
political considerations to outweigh practical, operational ones. They simply
don't know, don't care and/or aren't willing to be educated about general
aviation. If they did, many more things would be back to "normal" by now. If
they did, they'd either take steps to open up the various airports that are
effectively closed by existing restrictions or they'd come clean with their
plans or lack thereof and announce that these airports will not be
allowed to reopen.
I can hear the howling now: "The federal government has more to worry about
right now than opening up some small airports." Maybe, maybe not. One thing's
for certain: GA is the segment of aviation that gets hit with the knee-jerk
Another thing's certain: There are a few very simple and very
cost-effective methods that can be implemented quickly and which would allow
these airports to reopen, in turn allowing operations to return to "normal,"
while ensuring security of the airspace. They include discrete transponder
codes; narrow, specific corridors directly to and from airports under Class B
airspace; and advance flight plan filing. All that is needed to do this is a
few minutes with the local Class B chart and some coordination between the
area AFSS and the responsible TRACON, among others. Very few operators
currently grounded would mind these restrictions; they'd probably
enthusiastically support them.
No one in the federal government in a position to do anything about it
seems to understand or care that constructive, well-considered actions
developed in partnership with industry can be more effective than the
knee-jerk, one-size-fits-all, do-something-even-if-it's-wrong restrictions of
which they are so fond. Instead, the federal government seems hell-bent to do
everything it can to tear down the last remaining pillars of confidence
general aviation has in our leaders' ability to make reasonable,
What's missing in this equation is the federal government's will to develop
and implement these steps. Instead, the powers that be would rather ignore the
problem, ignore the millions billions, perhaps of dollars the impacted
GA operators contribute to the economy each year and hope they will simply dry
up and go away. It's politics, pure and simple.
Instead, there are a lot of steps that each and every one of us can take,
some of them I've outlined above. Now's the time to do it.
The terrorists who are behind all of this are sitting in a cave somewhere,
watching CNN, laughing their asses off.
It's nothing more than Blowing Snow.