The Pilot's Lounge #95: Amazing! There Are TFRs That Make Sense

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Turns out there is a procedure in place to allow general aviation aircraft to provide relief in disaster areas, and the folks who created and manage the procedure know what they are doing. AVweb's Rick Durden is already helping plan for the next disasters with this month's column from The Pilot's Lounge.

The Pilot's Lounge

While in the Pilot's Lounge here at the virtual airport, I got to checking my email and found one that took me to task for asserting that the Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) created as a result of Hurricane Katrina were ill-conceived and poorly planned. I had complained because of the difficulties reported by some pilots who sought to assist in the immediate aftermath of the storm. The email of interest came from Julie Stewart, who holds the position of National Airspace Project Manager with the U.S. Forest Service. Ms. Smith most politely asked that I get in touch with her so that I might learn more about the TFRs that are created over sites that experience natural disasters, as well as the process that goes into deciding the type of TFR to be created, the geographic area encompassed and the duration.

I called Ms. Stewart and learned that my comments -- to the effect that the TFRs associated with the hurricane did not go through a planning process that took enough factors into consideration -- were off the mark. While I remain of the opinion that many of the post-9/11 "security" TFRs (that seem to be anything but temporary) are politically-motivated eyewash, the TFRs that get created when there is a forest fire, after a tornado, flood or hurricane are different animals. Those TFRs are generally created by people who know what they are doing. Further, upon checking, I discovered that a number of the pilots who had complained that the Hurricane Katrina TFRs prevented them from using their airplanes to bring in food or medicine or fly out the ill or injured either didn't actually bother to read the NOTAMs to get the procedures to engage in humanitarian flights. I learned that many individuals and groups were able to comply with the requirements in the NOTAMs and fly into the airports within the post-hurricane TFRs to render assistance.

So, What's the Deal?

For a long time the local, state and federal folks who have a stake in what goes on during and after natural or man-made disasters -- as well as events that draw large numbers of people -- have recognized that putting a lot of airplanes into a chunk of airspace that doesn't normally have a crowd can make for a situation that isn't conducive to the long-term health and well being of pilots and passengers. Thus, there is FAR 91.137, "Temporary flight restrictions in the vicinity of disaster/hazard areas." (Yes, that could include an Elvis concert.)

A large number of the TFRs created under 91.137 are for the purpose of protecting those engaged in fighting large forest fires. Ms. Stewart is based out west, where the big wild fires live, and made it pretty clear that when there is a major fire there is a fair amount of local excitement and a heck of a lot of smoke that can cause visibility to be zero over large areas. As an added attraction at no extra charge the conditions that generate the big fires also have a way of providing very strong winds and major-league turbulence just to keep things interesting for pilots. There is likely to be a decent-sized air force involved with fighting the fire: airplanes that drop in smoke jumpers, airplanes carrying the spotters and coordinators for the fight and the fire bombers that range in size from single-engine turboprop ag planes through various helos to four-engine converted bombers and transports. Having normal VFR and IFR traffic in the area -- as well as the gawkers that any disaster attracts like maggots -- generate the ingredients for a potentially lethal aerial cocktail. It seems logical that a TFR is the way to regulate the number of aircraft in the area. It also seems logical that juggling the variables involved with creating TFRs to establish protected airspace for those areas is not an exercise for amateurs.

Ms. Stewart works within the Forest Service, with various branches of the FAA -- most notably the ATC crowd -- as well as other federal, state and local agencies and organizations any time a 91.137 TFR is considered. Interestingly, requests for TFRs come in from localities in the field -- from the bottom up, not the top down -- and the number of requests for TFRs vastly exceeds the number of TFRs actually created. She and the people with whom she works have to take into consideration the nature of the underlying problem, the geographic area that needs to be protected, the potential disruption to travel, the needs of the folks who are engaged in fire fighting and rescue, the possible direction of movement and growth of the fire, and the ability to communicate with aircraft that need to be in the area covered by the TFR. And that's just for starters; the considerations go on from there almost exponentially. The decision-makers have to decide whether the event is large enough to need a TFR; and, assuming it does, what triggers the issuance. They also have to constantly decide if the TFR is too big, too small, too tall, too short or, as the baby bear said, "just right" and whether it needs to be moved as a fire moves or changes direction. Finally, they have to decide when the TFR is no longer needed and shut it down.

Any TFR is created and amended by NOTAM. FAR 91.137 defines the type of TFRs that can be created (they vary) and also states, in general, how a pilot who needs to be in the area can get permission to do so. The NOTAMs that create and amend TFRs give the details on how to get authorization to get into the TFR and how to coordinate with the appropriate ATC agency, be it on the ground or airborne.

When It's Whirly Season

Thus, when a hurricane threatens the U.S., it makes sense that the folks who have the reflexes for creating and monitoring TFRs over hazard areas should be the ones to do the same thing on the larger scale required by a hurricane. That's precisely what was done with the hurricanes of 2005. Ms. Stewart relocated to Washington, D.C., where there is a command post at the lead agency for these airspace events, the Department of Transportation. The command post allows for communication with the myriad number of agencies involved with the battening down the hatches in preparation for a hurricane and, afterward, the rescue, provisioning and cleanup. What makes the process of creating a TFR that affects a national airspace system more than a little interesting is that planning and coordination for disasters is primarily conducted on a local level. The folks who live in the local area tend to be the ones who best know their area. It's a little like the old management exercise of dealing with a problem on an assembly line: To find out what it is and how solve it, you don't ask the mangers who deal with the line from afar, you ask the men and women who are on the line, day in and day out, dealing with the realities. So, such an approach makes sense for smaller events.

As the potential magnitude of an event grows, local officials are the ones who decide whether they have the resources to handle it locally or call for county, state or federal assistance. (The lightning strike that kills or injures a half a dozen folks at a high-school baseball game is probably handled locally; the tornado that follows may require help throughout a county or state aid; the flooding from the weather system that unleashed the mass of tornadoes, of which this was one, may be so widespread that federal assistance is needed.) Therefore, a massive portion of the effort in determining whether to create TFRs, their size and duration, involves coordinating with officials at the village, county and state levels, often over a number of states because of the huge potential footprint of a hurricane.

For the 2005 hurricanes, TFRs were created and amended. For Katrina, the first one was in effect before landfall. There was a gigantic disruption of ATC due to loss of electricity over widespread areas as well as flooding and damage to ATC facilities by wind and flying debris. The response was to use airborne ATC, through military resources. All of this was announced by NOTAM. What is important to understand is that the NOTAMs spelled out the procedures for pilots who had reason to fly into an airport or through an area affected by a TFR to be able do so. The NOTAMs gave telephone numbers and communications frequencies.

In the aftermath of my column critical of FEMA, I learned of many general aviation pilots and organizations that were able to use their airplanes and skills to assist. They were the ones who arranged for the supplies they delivered to be met at the destination airport. (A number of those who desired to help did not make sure there was someone at the destination airport to handle incoming supplies, and had to just leave the supplies on a ramp because no one knew they were coming.) Those who were prepared for disaster relief knew to get on the phone and comply with the TFR access requirements under the appropriate NOTAMs. They were the ones who got a clearance to fly in and out of the area through coordination with ATC and deliver food, medicine and equipment. Once flying inside the TFR, they found that there were a heck of a lot of airplanes and helicopters working, so communication and coordination within the airspace was essential. With a few phone calls under the NOTAM, and by making sure that they would have ground support at their destination, they found that they could carry out their humanitarian missions.

Better Each Year

Ms. Stewart told me that after the last TFR was shut down following the hurricanes, the people involved did a post-mortem to see what they could have done better and what they could learn in preparation for the next one. They are currently planning for the next hurricane season. From the standpoint of general aviation pilots who want to use their skills and their airplanes to help out with the next one, now is a good time to prepare. It does not take a lot of prescience to predict that there will be another "big one" somewhere in the next year, be it earthquake, flood, fire or swarm of locusts. The "Omigawd it's terrible, I've got to help" reaction after an event is all well and good, but to truly help one has to be prepared. I suggest reading the language of 91.137 and taking a look at the Web site used by the people involved in disaster preparation for information. I also suggest getting in touch with the Aircare Alliance so that you can connect with one or more of the public benefit flying groups that can help you make your determination to help others more effective.

For the local officials reading this, I also suggest that you make sure your local airport is in good shape, for it may just be your lifeline when things go very bad. A lot of communities have discovered after major calamites that the "little airport" just outside of town with the 3,000-foot runway allowed urgently needed supplies, food and fuel to get in and desperately injured or ill individuals to get out to life-saving care when the local hospitals were swamped. I'm concerned about communities such as the city of Chicago, which has already effectively written the death certificates for thousands of its citizens by destroying its downtown airport, Meigs Field. If the New Madrid fault lets go or another disaster occurs that cripples surface transportation, the ability to supply those high-rise dwellers in the Loop is not going to exist. Let's hope other communities have leaders who recognize the critical value of their airports and will stand up to petty tyrants and prevent them from destroying their city's hope for survival because of short-term political desires.

In the wake of the 2005 hurricanes, we've learned that our nation's airports are more than just convenient launching sites for rapid transportation; they may be the difference between life and death when man or nature causes things to go very bad, very rapidly. Even if a TFR is in place over the community, so long as there is a functioning airport, there is a way to get help to those who are at risk and airplanes of all sizes will be available to transport that aid.

See you next month.


Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.