Olympics ‘security’ was major trial for bizav ops

 - March 26, 2008, 10:36 AM

Not a single person interviewed by AIN expressed the opinion that the business aviation security requirements to fly to the Winter Olympics either made sense or did much to protect the Salt Lake City site from attack by air. Everyone was sympathetic with the intent but left cold by with the implementation.

Special Federal Aviation Regulation 95 established security restrictions for the duration of the event that resulted in a 45-nm-diameter TFR around Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC). Flight crews were required to undergo a lengthy application process that included signing waivers allowing investigation of literally any aspect of their life. If successful, pilots would be issued a photo identification badge that was quickly dubbed a “magic decoder ring.”

Within the 45-nm “Olympic Ring” a number of smaller TFRs encircled various Olympic venues. The plan also provided for gateway airports at Boise (BOI), Colorado Springs (COS), Grand Junction (GCT) and Las Vegas (LAS). (For full details of the process see the February issue of AIN).

Within 24 hr of the announcement, wily business pilots had figured out the plan was full of holes. Many turned to the sectional chart to explore options. The FAA, hurrying to catch up, did the same and implemented a special traffic management program (STMP) effective February 8 through 25 at Wendover (ENV), Logan (LGU) and Brigham City (BMC) and at Evanston, Wyoming (EVW). The airports, none of which have control towers, required slot reservations that could be made up to 72 hr in advance. Controlled chaos reigned from the onset.

It became easy to blame any of a host of agencies, but particularly the Utah Olympic Public Safety Command (UOPSC). The inability of flight crews to get credentials, despite their following the application instructions to the letter, resulted in a running joke in Internet bizav chat rooms. “We don’t need no stinking badges”–referring to the famous line from the Mel Brooks movie Blazing Saddles–became a rallying cry for disgruntled pilots. Most blamed the Utah Department of Public Safety (UDPS)–the first destination for the applications–but that agency’s Joyce Carter maintained that the facility was processing applications every 10 min. She had a backlog, but they were efficient. From UDPS, the application, official identification badge and background security check information went to UOPSC and in some cases apparently vanished.

Matt Rogers, chief pilot for a Mather, Calif.-based company, said their two pilots were among the fortunate. They received their badges on February 5 and made the trip three days later. “It was a good experience working with the FAA and customs inspectors on our Provo (PVU) trip. We used Boise for our gateway and it was smooth, quick and cordial. Guards with M-16s surrounded our Hawker 700, so that was a bit exciting. Passengers, crew and luggage were unloaded, and physically inspected, and each person was checked with a metal-detector wand. The aircraft was inspected with a bomb-sniffer. Then everyone re-boarded and we were off. It didn’t take long at all.”

Keith Lorch, a Learjet 60 pilot from Phoenix, said he received his packet from UOPSC on February 4. “It came to my home via U.S. mail,” he told AIN. “Included in the packet, which had a hand-written address, was a photo identification badge, on the reverse side of which the job position box was left blank. There were also eight sheets of paper with procedures, phone numbers, Notams, a reservation data form and an application for flights originating and ending within the Olympic Circle.” Lorch was one of the first to receive his credentials, yet they arrived only days before the Olympic opening ceremony.

“One of my pilots still hasn’t received his credentials,” said Bob Otway during the last week of the Olympics. Otway is chief pilot on a Challenger 604 for Harrisburg, Pa.-based Graham Companies. “We have two captains and a first officer. The other captain and I received our credentials but our first officer didn’t. We submitted all the documentation last December in the same envelope. Unfortunately, the other captain was slated for training and I thought to myself, ‘It is going to be very difficult single-piloting a Challenger.’ Bottom line was, we couldn’t fly into Salt Lake City.”

Otway chose Evanston, 60 mi from Park City, so his passengers could rent a car and drive. “I called the [UOPSC] number listed in the paperwork and left several messages but never got a response,” he said. It was a common thread–apparently UOPSC didn’t return calls.

Credentials were sent in an envelope held shut by a single metal clasp. None was sealed, and many pilots reported the envelope flap was torn; in a few cases much of the envelope was torn away. One chief pilot expressed concern because one of his captains received a packet with a torn flap and no identification card. “We knew it had been issued because we immediately called the Utah State Police and they were able to verify it had been sent; they had the ID number,” he said. “This is security? How secure is that?”

More problems arose with understanding exactly what a crew could and could not do with respect to flight operations. The stakes were high: the Olympic Ring was protected by AWACS aircraft coordinating the efforts of fighter aircraft on patrol, tanker aircraft, law enforcement aircraft, military helicopters and even Civil Air Patrol aircraft. If those proved to be insufficient, there was additional fighter support on alert at nearby Hill Air Force Base. One Learjet captain noted, “I looked around the airspace surrounding SLC and thought if ever there was a 45-mile-radius circle full of potential midair collisions, this was it.”

Richard Roche, captain on a privately owned Challenger 604 based in Trenton, N.J. went through the drill on February 15. “The first part–getting a reservation slot–was interesting,” he said. “I was on hold for an hour. The person who answered was very courteous and efficient. He approved a 4 p.m. slot for February 15 and said we had a 20-minute window. I was also approved for a quick-turn at Salt Lake City, meaning I could drop off the passengers and leave without having to go through the standard departure security inspection. My flight planning specifically allowed time to stop at the FBO first for fuel and to use the restrooms.”

As it turned out, Roche arrived at the Colorado Springs gateway 30-min early. “When we arrived we discovered there were fuel and facilities at the check point itself and no other aircraft. They just let us taxi up early, no questions asked. There were a lot of National Guardsmen floating around with M-16s, and a couple of FAA guys. One came on board, got our IDs and left the aircraft to check them out. Then they told the five of us to exit the aircraft.” Roche stressed that throughout the procedure everyone was friendly, and the process took about 40 min.

The National Guardsmen went through everything on board–includinh suitcases and flight bags. Afterward, the FAA returned and told them they were cleared to leave; the flight went on to SLC, where they dropped off their passengers. The crew was not allowed to leave the aircraft in SLC because they had requested a quick-turn. As soon as the passengers deplaned, the aircraft was cleared to depart. “The whole thing took maybe 20 minutes,” Roche said. “The folks on the ground in SLC told us they’d gotten hammered financially. People stayed away in droves because of the hassle. There were maybe 20 aircraft on the ramp, whereas in previous Olympics I’ve seen 150 or more. This whole thing is one of the wackiest procedures I can imagine ever being thought up.”

Roche’s experience with the reservation system was better than most. A frequent complaint was that calls to the reservation system would be automatically disconnected after long waits. “The whole experience is unfair and absurd,” one pilot complained. Another said it was the day before the opening ceremony and none of his pilots had received their documents.

Misunderstanding of the system was second only to problems in the ID badge system. Many pilots expressed concern about flying through Olympic venue TFRs while on an ATC-approved instrument approach into Salt Lake City. The regulation does permit it, but there was widespread uncertainty nonetheless. After the first few crews flew into SLC and faced the issue, advice spread via Internet forums: file an ASRS report if you “infringe” just to be sure you’re covered. Adding still more confusion, the FAA canceled two related TFRs on February 8. Several inadvertent incursions were met by military aircraft making it clear an immediate landing was required.

“I got my credentials three days after the opening, and my co-captain still hasn’t received his,” Bill Konn, chief pilot for Safeway Insurance, said. “We did everything required and got it all in on time, for nothing. I tried to talk to UOPSC and got recordings saying the mailbox was full. Fortunately they opened up Brigham City, and that saved us. We made two trips and brought 16 people in and out of there. Those passengers couldn’t  have cared less about the Olympics; they just wanted to get back to their home near Park City. This fiasco greatly extended their ground trip home from the airport. Thank goodness the weather cooperated, because the airport is VFR only. What I’d like to know is whether we get our $30 ID processing fee back for their screw-up. We’ve got one more trip coming up, and whether or not we get the secret decoder ring, we’re going to Brigham City. No reservations, no hassles, no gateway stops, no dobermans fouling my aisle.”