Private pilots chafing at restrictions around capital

A temporary restriction on the airspace around the Washington metropolitan area could become permanent, according to a recently issued proposed rule by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The plan has outraged private pilots who consider the extra security excessive.

“I’m trying to be respectful of the need for some kind of protection of the nation’s capital infrastructure,” said Phil Boyer, president of Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), “but is there a need to protect this huge area?”

The Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) encompasses all the land within an irregularly shaped boundary drawn at least 15 miles and as many as 38 miles around the triangle formed by Baltimore-Washington International, Dulles International and Ronald Reagan Washington National airports. At its widest point, the no-go area is 90 miles across.

The restriction was introduced as a part of Operation Liberty Shield to “enhance homeland security during the buildup toward the war in Iraq” in February 2003, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report.

In addition to inconvenience, the restrictions have caused economic damage to small airports within the zone, Boyer said, since many pilots avoid the area because of the procedural headaches required to enter it.

“We don’t go to those airports anymore,” he said.

Air traffic controllers have had difficulty handling the volume of requests for entry into the zone on clear days when the skies are crowded with private pilots, Boyer added.

Paul Takemoto, a spokesman for the FAA, said that although the increased traffic was initially an issue it is becoming more manageable.

“The whole process of alerting pilots has become better with further education. … The number of incursions [into the airspace] have dropped,” he said.

The perimeter can be tricky to navigate and identify, especially for the novice pilot or someone unfamiliar with the area, according to Kathleen Roy, a media and public-affairs specialist for AOPA.

“In 2004, we received 1,200 calls and e-mails from our members regarding the ADIZ,” said. “So far in 2005, we have received 1,500 calls and e-mails about it.”

“Members contact us with complaints and concerns about the ADIZ, and also with questions about the procedures required to operate within that airspace,” Roy said.

The Department of Homeland Security, the agency in charge of the restriction, did not return several phone calls for comment.

On Friday, 2,500 feet above Frederick, Md., in a four-seat Piper Archer aircraft, Roy took The Hill through the procedures pilots must complete to enter the airspace. She pointed out where the zone begins by indicating several small landmarks.

“When the wing reaches about halfway on that hill,” she said, pointing to a mound in the hazy distance, “we are in the ADIZ.”

She explained that there are several smaller landmarks on the ground that also indicates where the zone starts; they were not entirely visible in Friday’s haze.

“If someone weren’t familiar with the area, it could be a problem,” she said.

Roy, who has been a pilot for 13 years, said she had seen several planes escorted out of the space by government aircraft. A pilot who veers into the zone without the proper clearance can face fines and a suspension of his or her license.

Most planes issued citations are not trying to fly directly into Washington but merely skim the restricted airspace because they are unfamiliar with the area.

Although Roy had filed a flight plan before takeoff, as required, she was denied access initially because air traffic control could not identify her plane. She circled outside the area while calling in her second attempt. Finally, she was given a four-digit transponder code that identified her aircraft as clear to enter the airspace. Five minutes later, the small aircraft gently touched down in Gaithersburg, Md.

Boyer and AOPA have advocated several plans, including allowing lighter aircraft, flying at slower speeds, to operate without such ADIZ requirements as filing a flight plan, obtaining a transponder code and maintaining two-way communications with air traffic control, according to Roy.

AOPA says the pre-ADIZ regime, such as Class B restrictions around most major U.S. cities and the 15-mile-radius Flight Restricted Zone (FRZ) around Washington, were adequate to protect the capital. Only commercial flights going into Reagan National are permitted inside the FRZ.

Public comment on the measure to make the ADIZ permanent does not end until November; in the meantime, Boyer has encouraged his 400,000 members nationwide to submit comments on the ADIZ and to contact their representatives on Capitol Hill.

The ADIZ is the second layer of restricted airspace around the Washington area.

This highly restricted airspace has been violated twice in the past two years. One incident occurred in June 2004, when a plane carrying the Kentucky governor to President Ronald Reagan’s funeral entered Washington’s no-fly zone. The second occurred in May when two men flying a small, lightweight plane from Pennsylvania accidentally breached the restricted area and were forced to land near AOPA headquarters in Frederick.