Holding The Line, TFRs, NORAD And General Aviation


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Holding The Line, TFRs, NORAD And General Aviation

Thomas J. Doscher

August 27, 2010 - Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFR) are nothing new, but in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks they've taken on a much more important role in the security of events and elected officials, often to the dismay of private aviators. 

In weaponizing aviation in a way not seen since the final years of World War II, terrorists have forced the Federal Aviation Administration, Transportation Security Administration and the North American Aerospace Defense Command to pay much closer attention to what's in the sky around key events and elected officials such as the President of the United States. 

It seems straightforward enough. If the president visits a city or town, the FAA puts up a TFR, an area of airspace around where the president will be, until he's left, restricting what aircraft may enter that area, under what conditions and in what ways. Those TFRs are announced by the FAA in the form of NOTAMs, Notices to Airmen. 

"Pilots are restricted by time, altitude and distance to designated points to control airspace around certain events," said James Gagnon, NORAD Operations Division Operations Standards Branch chief. "It doesn't necessarily mean you can't fly in there, but there are certain compliance restrictions to fly in that airspace." 

Gagnon said TFRs aren't a new thing, though they've gained prominence following Sept. 11, 2001. There is always a TFR around a space shuttle launch, for example, or volcanic eruptions. A TFR was established around New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon explosion to clear the airspace for helicopter rescue operations.  

"They're put out there for a very good reason," he said. "Under current policy, he (the president) will always have a TFR wherever he goes. That's why we work really closely with the Secret Service, FAA and other agencies." 

Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. - An F-15E Strike Eagle from the 333rd Fighter Squadron assigned to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., patrols the skies over Kennedy Space Center, Fla., as the Space Shuttle Atlantis launches into space for the last time. During the patrol, Strike Eagle aircrews identified and redirected five aircraft that inadvertently violated the airspace restriction put in place for the launch. The North American Aerospace Defense Command is responsible for defending the airspace where temporary flight restrictions have been established. (U.S. Air Force photo by Capt. John Peltier)

When someone violates the restrictions, particularly in a TFR protecting the president, then you have a problem. "Not everybody reads NOTAMS," said Gagnon. "And that's why you have these 'tracks of interest,' as we call them, that we have to identify who they are and get them out of there." While the FAA establishes TFRs, NORAD is charged with protecting the airspace, Gagnon explained. "When an aircraft enters a TFR that is not in contact with air traffic control and fighters are available, we'll have the fighter aircraft escort them out of the TFR," he said.  

What happens during an intercept is fairly straightforward and done in accordance with International Civil Aviation Organization procedures, Gagnon said. Fighters will approach the errant aircraft and attempt to identify it. The interceptors will try to get the pilot's attention and establish communication, either on the radio or by visual signals such as rocking their wings. Once they have the pilot's attention, they'll instruct the pilot to follow them out of the TFR. 

Communication, Gagnon said, is the key. Most people who violate TFRs aren't aware of them and aren't in communication with the FAA. "It's these people who are not on a flight plan or are flying VFR (Visual Flight Rules)," he said. "They're not talking to anybody, and FAA doesn't know who they are. It's much easier when you're talking to the guy." If that doesn't work, the interceptors can become more... insistent... employing more aggressive tactics such as dropping flares and performing "head-butt" maneuvers, the rough equivalent of giving someone a shove and saying, "Hey, you!" 

Most of the time, the pilot realizes his mistake, or at the very least recognizes that a U.S. fighter is flying very closely to them and they should try to communicate with them. The fighters typically escort the aircraft out of the TFR, and usually proceed to their destination or diverted to a nearby airport where, upon landing, the FAA and sometimes law enforcement will get a hold of them for an explanation. "Whatever they do, it's out of NORAD's hands, Gagnon said. "Our job is to defend the airspace, and that's what we do. Once they get out of that airspace and land, then it becomes an FAA or law enforcement issue." 

Breaking a TFR is a civil violation, and the penalties for busting a TFR vary on the circumstances and intent said Special Agent Yen Yung, Federal Bureau of Investigation Liaison to NORAD and USNORTHCOM. "TSA and FAA would have primacy as to jurisdiction," he explained. "Both the Department of Justice and the FBI would have very limited roles in a true TFR situation. The one point which would make the issue a criminal violation would be if we have evidence to support the action was intentional and, more importantly, malicious." Yung said in most cases the FAA decides what penalty, if any, to mete out. 

"The General Counsel for FAA would make the final determination to assess fines and fees, and the possible revocation of the pilot's license based on the investigation conducted by the TSA and FAA," he said. "An Enforcement Investigative Report is usually generated by the investigative agency for the TFR violations." The punishment could seem draconian to someone who depends on their license for their livelihood, but there are also costs associated with maintaining and defending the TFR. 

"Everything we do after we decide to scramble, there's a cost to it," Gagnon said. "Whether it's FAA and the investigation they have to do afterward or the Secret Service and their investigation as well as to launch the aircraft and their fuel costs." There is also a cost in man-hours, Yung said, particularly if the incident could be a terrorist act. 

"If the incident is treated as a potential terrorist act, the entire Joint Terrorism Task Force component is stood up to identify if there is a threat to national security," he said. "The last one I was involved in required an F-16 to escort from the no-fly zone, and the JTTF interviewing the pilot for any terrorist threats." With those costs and the possibility of the pilot losing their license hanging out there, one might think that a TFR violation is rare. 

"TFRs are broken all the time," Gagnon said. "You have to figure there are, during the course of the day, not only the thousands of commercial and general aviation aircraft, but private civilian aircraft that are flying in the United States. The chance of a few of them busting a TFR are fairly high, and that's what we see." 

Why so many? According to Craig Spence, Vice President of Operations and International Affairs for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, it's a breakdown in communication coupled with a confusing system of getting the information into the hands of pilots in the first place. He said NOTAMs can be difficult to find and hard for some people to understand, which inevitably leads to pilots violating TFRs purely on accident. 

"Some of these folks don't even know it's (the NOTAMs) out there," he said. "We're sticklers for rules. Our whole process is regulated, and we're used to these type of things, but if you don't know the rules, you can't play the game." One issue causing TFR violations, Spence said, is how quickly they can be established or changed, often with very little time to notify the pilots. He used a presidential trip to Chicago as an example. 

"The Chicago TFR changed seven times in a five-day time period," he said in regards to a TFR established for President Barack Obama?s visit to the city in May. "It got to be a rather complex set of flight restrictions that became cumbersome. A lot of the time, these are last-minute TFRs that are popping up, and I may already be airborne at that point in time or the TFR may shift due to sudden changes in the VIP's movement. These are some of the ones that really get us in the biggest problems." 

Gagnon acknowledged that TFRs can change, particularly when a VIP has to move around but said pilots are required to check all appropriate NOTAMs and should be aware of established TFRs, particularly when flying around large cities. 

"A lot of private pilots are out there just flying VFR," he said. "They don't check them. They don't make it a habit of checking them, and when you start to fly around bigger cities it's probably a good idea to do so. Most of the problems we have are with civilian aviators who are not used to flying around those kind of areas like D.C. or New York, or they are used to it and just aren't used to flying around with a TFR in place. I think the same thing is going to happen with Chicago that happened with Crawford when President Bush would visit his ranch in Texas. As you get more and more education on these specific TFRs that are on-going or frequent, you're going to get better compliance, and you won't have as many problems." 

Education as a way to decrease TFR violations is one of the areas where Spence and Gagnon agree. One of the services AOPA provides is a "plain language NOTAM," taking what the FAA puts out and making it easier for pilots to understand. They also provide graphical representations of the TFRs they know about and e-mail pilots within a certain radius of TFRs, letting them know that they're there. "A local outreach is critical," Spence said. "If you can get the word out to these people in time as they're starting to do their preflight planning, that would be a significant improvement." 

NORAD, meanwhile, has developed their own outreach program to provide the NORAD perspective of air defense operations, including the rules and procedures general aviation pilots must follow and the procedures used by NORAD fighter and helicopter intercept pilots. The briefings are given to FAA air traffic controllers and general aviation pilots, often by NORAD headquarters pilots who have both alert and commercial airline experience. 

Douglas DalSoglio, NORAD Operations Division analyst, said they try to conduct the briefings around airports where large events are scheduled to take place, such as around Chicago in preparation for presidential visits. "We go to most of the small airfields in the area," he said. "NORAD briefed over 850 general aviation pilots at AirVenture 2009 in Oshkosh, Wis. General aviation outreach briefings have also been given to pilots prior to events like the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic games, presidential trips and FAA Safety Team presentations at local airports around the country." 

DalSoglio said the there have been tangible effects. "The rate of violations that we've seen over the last nine years has gone down due to the continuing education and getting the word out," he said. Spence said he would like to see TFRs go away altogether but realizes that isn't going to happen in the present security climate. In the meantime, he said he wants to see more advanced notice on TFRs and a more "realistic application" of them, using them when necessary and not as a "status symbol" for events. Having TFRs for the sake of having them, he said, isn't security. 

"If there is a security threat then the assets need to be positioned to defend against those threats," he said. "A TFR without that defense is, in essence, useless. All we're doing is keeping the honest people out, separating compliance from noncompliance." The subject of TFRs is a contentious one, with one side saying they're necessary for security, and the other, private pilots like Spence, saying they're a burden unlike any found in any other form of transportation.  

The debate continues even as the threats do. In February, Andrew Stack crashed a small plane into an IRS building in Austin, Texas. In April 2009, a plane stolen in Canada was tracked by NORAD fighters as it flew to southeast Missouri while government buildings in the aircraft's path were evacuated. NORAD, which for 50 years was prepared to intercept and engage Soviet bombers over Canada and Alaska, has found itself busier than ever defending the U.S. from the possibility of light aircraft stuffed with bombs and hijacked airliners loaded with fuel. 

Wherever a person positions themselves on the TFR debate, one thing is clear, according to Gagnon. NORAD will continue to defend the airspace for as long as they're asked to. "The Secret Service has determined they are necessary," he said. "And the FAA establishes the TFRs. They have asked NORAD to assist in defending the airspace. It's not for us to determine that they're necessary. Our job is to defend the airspace, and that's what we do."


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