Life Inside the Washington TFR -- A Year (Or Two) Of Living Dangerously

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AVweb has reported extensively on the challenges of flying in the Washington, D.C. area, what with the new ADIZ and all the rest, and especially the plight of the three GA airports located within the area. The owner of one of those airports describes the ingenious solution they use to fly and even train new pilots.

ATIS

Imagine a post-9/11 world filled with F16s, Blackhawk helicopters, surface-to-air missiles, AWACs, ADIZs, TFRs, FRZs, and other airspaces people haven't even figured out yet.


Imagine being cleared to fly through all that with 'nary a care in the world.

Now imagine preserving your freedom to travel through this airspace through numerous, ambiguous, ambivalent, and overlapping jurisdictions of military, federal and intelligence organizations, including but not limited to the DOD, U.S. Customs, TSA, U.S. Secret Service, FAA, and some other agencies you've only read about in novels.

If that's not interesting enough, within these agencies are more over-stressed, over-worked, under-staffed, over-wrought, highly-anxious bureaucrats than you can shake a stick at. They are all trying to grapple with issues they've never faced before, with which they have little or no personal experience.

Even better, they know they will be accountable for any decisions they make, or not, as the case may be.

Then, imagine you own the most beautiful aircraft in the world, namely a Cessna 337 Skymaster; and, furthermore, that you also happen to own a small GA airport located between Washington National Airport and Andrews AFB in the very midst of it all.

Welcome to my world. I own the Potomac Airfield (KVKX) in Fort Washington, Md. In my own humble way, I like to think of us as being at the "heart" of the Washington, D.C., airspace.

Okay, I'm a realist; maybe I'm exaggerating just a bit. Perhaps the Cessna 337 isn't the most beautiful airplane in the world.

Clearing the Minefield

Now imagine that within this strange and wonderful world, as a normal GA pilot, owning the aforementioned good-looking Skymaster, I have been personally "cleared" through a weird sort of military security clearance appropriate to the area.

No, the U.S. Secret Service didn't actually interview my third-grade teachers, but darn close. They also missed those outstanding parking tickets from years ago; but I digress.

The end result of being cleared in this sensitive airspace is that I then have the means to generate airspace clearances, like a weird military "PPR" (prior permission required) clearance. I also get to use some pretty cool air-combat IFF (Identify Friend from Foe) techniques to fly my noble Skymaster through this exciting air show -- on a daily basis, without the slightest concern -- waving to my friends flying those F16s and Blackhawks. No TFR worries, no ADIZ worries. Piece of cake.

Believe it or not, we've even got a flying club at Potomac Airfield, and it even offers primary training, as well as being an almost-regular flying club. After the pilot, or would-be pilot, gets cleared, they are briefed, then they get to remark "Air Combat IFF Qualified" and go about their lives.

Put that in your logbook!

By all means, check out the ATC Flying Club at Potomac Airfield.

Once you've got the right perspective, it's easy and it's actually pretty cool.

Yes, the airspace and clearance systems required to make this all run smoothly have occasional snafus, and occasionally they go tilt. But these systems were set up to handle 100% of the IFR traffic and 5% of the VFR traffic; now they've also got the other 95% of the VFR traffic as well, and they are adjusting to the new world even as we speak. I, er, um, I mean "as I write."

It gets easier every day.

Civilian Air Combat IFF

So where did this all come from? To offer a bit of background, it was derived some two years ago, just after 9/11, from a confidential document to the White House and the U.S. Secret Service (USSS) in which I proffered an unusual yet valid 89th Military Airlift ID (The Presidential Wing). In this terribly serious document I couldn't resist using as my example the code "007." I simply couldn't resist.

As dry as the USSS can be, even they got a grin out of it. You see, the USSS pulls on their Kevlar bulletproof flack jackets one arm at a time, just like regular folks.

To paraphrase the head of procedures at Washington National Airport, once he was briefed, "This is interesting; you are basically using sophisticated air combat IFF techniques with participating civilian aircraft."

To which I replied, "Yup, now you've got it."

More importantly, it's all pretty simple once you understand what you are doing and why.

The current airspace air-traffic system is descended from military airspace IFF procedures and techniques, so it becomes a relatively simple matter to, in a sense, step portions of it back to its prior function.

In prior days, we knew we didn't have to scramble our P51s to intercept every approaching aircraft because we knew when the inbound aircraft was one of our own B17s. The aircraft was within flight plan parameters, and most importantly it was showing the correct transponder code, which had only been given to the known captain of that B17, for that one flight, good only that one time.

That's how it still works, sort of.

In the highly sensitive airspace around Washington, D.C., only cleared pilots have the means to generate what are actually military airspace clearances "on the fly," as well as other simple procedures to convey duress if there is a problem.

A duress signal triggers either an extended lunch at a military base with your "new friend," or something more spectacular should you keep going in the wrong direction, ignoring those pilots in the Blackhawks and/or F16s frantically yelling and waving their arms at you. ("Arms" may be taken with either meaning.)

This is really quite easy for the good guy, and darn near impossible for the bad guy. No, it's not totally impossible for the bad guy, but it makes all other alternatives easier and preferable.

That's the reality of effective security measures: If you realistically match the deterrent, detection, defense and interdiction to the threat, the threat moves elsewhere.

Alternatively, you can more easily stick your head entirely in the sand and keep it there, but this accomplishes nothing except making yourself uncomfortable.

If you keep doing something silly forever, however well-intentioned it may have been at first, you only end up wasting your own resources while giving the real bad guys something to laugh about as they watch you tie yourself into knots.

Half the Recipe

Yes, the current attempt to describe these procedures through public FAA SFARs and NOTAMs is a bit confused. It's like trying to publicly explain how to prepare "Confidential Chicken Paprikash," only giving half the recipe. No matter how hard or carefully people try to follow the instructions given out this way, it keeps coming out wrong.

There's nothing wrong with chicken paprikash, merely the recipe given in this confusing manner is incomplete. Once you're cleared you get the rest of the recipe and dinner comes out fine.

The administrative dilemma is how to give out confidential information to pilots, without doing something so silly as, "Pilots are advised to use the following confidential security measures ..."

The easy and correct way to do it is for anyone to be welcome to apply for clearance, and once they are cleared they get the rest of the recipe.

Simple.

The Challenge of Airspace Security

To get perspective, wind your clocks back to late October 2001. History makes it obvious that the events of 9/11 were not the start of it: 9/11 was in fact the last straw.

In response, domestic and world events compelled our Government (note the use of capital letters, even still) into taking responsibility, accountability and command for airspace security, something it had never done.

In fact, for a long time, those tasked with being "in charge" weren't even sure of what they were supposed to be securing. That's why ALL the doors were locked -- at least at first.

A good friend, an Irishman with a long intel history, described it this way over a pint of Guinness, "Imagine a heavily armed guard, eyes intently scanning the horizon, guarding a smoking hole behind them."

Perhaps it was over more than a pint, I can't clearly recall.

Generally, since that time, people have slowly begun to realize that UAVs won't first come into the pilot shop to present their photo ID; that suicidal zealots don't find cutting fences difficult; that shooting every GA pilot, blowing up every GA aircraft, and dropping JDAMs every 100 yards on all the paved runways at every airport in the USA, while tending to reduce GA activity somewhat, would have no impact on the bad guys from taking off any small, assembled or stolen aircraft, from any unattended open grass field, or small road, totally unfettered.

Let me repeat that point, it's important: Even if you literally kill off every GA pilot and destroy every small aircraft, the bad guys remain, for the most part, only slightly inconvenienced. If they are determined to use a small aircraft, they are still free to take off, using any number of small aircraft, from any open field, or even any big backyard. Even the most extreme ground-security measures accomplish nothing except to kill off the innocent, for no tactical gain.

That why it's all boils down to airspace IFF; the rest is a waste of time and scarce resources.

Cleared pilots can identify themselves to air-traffic as "Friend," and all others are presumed "Foe."

Dramatic, yes? But easy.

Fantasies of Zealots

And then, of course, there is the danger of wrapping federal policy around the fantasies of misguided zealots.

I've always wondered what the other half of that NSA intercept might have been:

"Allah willing we will blow things up using small aircraft."

"No Muhammad, that is stupid, it will not work, we will look like fools."

Government Cooperation

For the Government to actually figure out what to do requires expertise from beyond any one agency, as well as coordination between many, some of which routinely operate in closed, sometimes classified worlds of their own, making these dialogues even more difficult.

You think it's easy having a dialogue with someone who doesn't exist and who cannot reply?

Again, welcome to my world. It is most interesting, in its own special way.

Tasked to assume responsibility for issues with which our Government had never dealt (except overseas in open-air conflicts -- hint), there were always only three possible moves:

The least likely move was that Government would simply concede an inability to manage security, and would bow out. "Aw shucks, since we're not equipped to manage airspace security, everybody just go back to what you were doing before 9/11."

I'm willing to take some pretty long bets, but...

The second, the easiest, and the most instantaneous option, was to simply cease all potentially embarrassing human activity for which the Government could find itself accountable. This offered overloaded bureaucracies 100% guaranteed, if not sustainable, results.

The third option, the most noble, and most importantly, the right thing to do, was, and remains today, to slowly and painfully teach our Government methods of securing airspace, using known military techniques, the sole purpose of which is to allow the civilian population of known "friends" to get on with their lives as normally as possible.

That's where this all came from, that's why it has happened, and that's why it was inevitable.

Speedy Delivery

Frankly, on September 11, the airspace here and elsewhere was 100% closed, and sometime in November the famous "007" paradigm was circulated. Going into Christmas 2001 was a truly wild time, so very little got done. January '02, the pieces started to be put in place, and in February we were reopened.

For Federal Government, that is premium-deluxe, overnight service; no extra charge.

Despite rumors to the contrary, our Government of checks and balances does work, just slowly and carefully.

Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and friends, take a bow.

The highest, most noble, and most difficult calling for any Constitutional Government is to preserve freedoms. As the founders of this country realized many years ago, reflected in the wisdom of the Constitution they wrote, it is extremely easy to take away freedoms; it is very difficult to preserve them.

That's what this has all been about, not just some silly little airports caught in bureaucratic confusion. In both a historical and philosophical sense, this is much, much larger.

Credit to the Heroes

Keeping that in mind, you should be reassured that behind those dark, closed doors in Washington, D.C., there are some real heroes who have quietly, step-by-step, been helping make things happen. To those people in Government (who probably wish to remain nameless, but you know who you are), take a bow. You are doing good. You are doing the right thing. Keep it moving.

Credit should also be given where credit is due. We can fly this way, or at all, because President Bush personally took a stand to make it so.

Regardless of where your political leanings may be, you should recognize that act as the leadership it represents. Again I convey thanks.

If you want to help this industry, if you want to help yourselves, live your lives. Some things are going to get sticky but there are good people trying to get them unstuck.

A Constitutional Government is of the people, who are governed by their own consent. That's really rather important to understand.

Of course, now turning to the commercial, I invite you to Potomac Airfield -- no fences, no silliness (well maybe just a bit for fun).

And check out the flying club at Potomac; once cleared you get to do some interesting things you can't do anywhere else.

To the pilot population at large, have confidence, keep the faith; there is every reason to do so.

Life is grand.

To the ramparts!