Blowing Snow

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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."

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 Snow.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward

No, This Is Not Normal...

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.

...Who's In Charge?...

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.

...We Deserve Better

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 happening.

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.

Voodoo Security

At Airports...

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 flights.

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.

...And Elsewhere

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 man-made.

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:

Kinetic Energy
Boeing 747 409,684,764,222 800,000 600
Boeing 767 128,186,722,222 250,000 600
B-25 640,933,611 20,000 150
Bonanza 384,560,167 3,000 300

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.

What Can Be Done?

By The Industry?...

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 Snow.

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.

...Or By The Feds?

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 restrictions.

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, well-considered decisions.

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.