Recently, two general aviation aircraft have been intercepted in the airspace over Camp David, the president’s retreat in rural Maryland. These interceptions come hot on the heels of a few weeks in which it seems that some bozo was being intercepted almost every day, be it an inadvertent ADIZ* penetration in the Southwest or yet another presidential TFR bust. How is this happening?
If we take just a moment and look at the airspace over Camp David, from a standard sectional chart, there is a PROHIBITED area P-40, and a RESTRICED area R-4009. These are HUGE airspace flags. If you see that on a chart, be very careful lest you too be afforded the opportunity to see an F-15 up close.
What are TFRs?
First, TFRs. TFRs are Temporary Flight Restrictions, airspace closures put up by the FAA to keep aircraft away from something. TFRs pop up over major-league sports events, space operations on Florida’s treasure coast, and in odd cases such as firefighting ops. TFRs also travel with the president and other VIPs, and have a nasty habit of popping up unexpectedly should the Prez or another honcho decide to travel.
TFRs are usually rings of closed airspace within a certain radius from a central point. If President Obama came to Lakeland, for instance, the airspace within 30 miles of the Lakeland VOR (a radio navigation aid) might be closed off. Some TFRs come with “shelves” for local traffic, and are penetrable IF you make advance arrangements with the FAA.
Now that we have a (very basic) definition of TFRs, how are people penetrating them? Checking for TFRs should be a part of thorough flight planning. The FAA tasks pilots with being responsible for all knowledge pertaining to a flight, including airspace, weather, condition of the aircraft, and applicable rules and regs. As part of planning a flight, even a local hop you’ve done a thousand times, it is imperative to double-check your flight planning before you go flying. You wouldn’t fly if you looked at the weather and saw a massive thunderstorm over your destination; similarly, you should change your plans if you notice a huge TFR.
Well how do I find these TFRs?
“But the weather is so easy to find, and TFRs aren’t!” I hear you say. Not true. First, when you get your weather briefing (you do that, right?), the briefer should be able to inform you of any TFRs enroute.
Second, because we always do our due diligence, you should check either the TFR map available through DUAT or the free and easy-to-read Graphic TFR Summary from the FAA. AOPA also offers a TFR locator. In this age of wireless everything and smartphones, there is no excuse not to check this before flying. Bookmark one of those in your mobile browser. It’s free and it takes five seconds and it spares you the inconvenience and danger of being intercepted.
Third, during flight planning, look at your charts. Are you near any MOAs? Overflying any federal facilities, military bases, or sports stadiums? Any towns that have been in the news for a presidential visit or Major News Event lately? If so, double check your TFRs before you go.
Fourth, you should be getting VFR flight following or other radar service if it is available. ATC will not knowingly send you into a TFR. If they’re talking to you, they will make a reasonable effort to guide you away from the restriction; if they are not, they’ll be calling up the Air Force and scrambling some fighter jets.
What do I do if I’m intercepted?
Don’t panic. Comply with all instructions. Do not try to outsmart or ignore your interceptor. If you’re talking to ATC, tell them you are being intercepted. Intercepting aircraft will often try to communicate via 121.5, so put that in your guard radio or check it to see if they’re talking to you. Otherwise, they will use predetermined aircraft motions to signal you what to do. An Interception Emergency Procedure Card is available, free, from AOPA. When you land, be cooperative and expect to chat with the friendly people at Homeland Security and possibly local or federal law enforcement. Cooperate. Contact your lawyer or your AOPA legal services rep after interception to help you deal with any fallout from your error.
The interceptions in the news lately bother me. A pilot doing due diligence will not be caught off guard by a TFR. That pilots who routinely fly anywhere near the DC SFRA** would ever be caught not checking airspace before flying REALLY bothers me. Interceptions make GA pilots look careless and clumsy and give the rest of us a black eye. Know before you go. Check your airspace. It takes two minutes or less, and it will help you avoid all sorts of trouble.
*ADIZ is the Air Defense Identification Zone, the airborne border of the United States. Crossing the ADIZ requires a defense flight plan or a VFR flight plan.
**DC SFRA is the Washington, DC Special Flight Rules Area. Don’t fly in or around DC unless you are very familiar with the SFRA.