Two violations of the Washington, D.C., air defense identification zone (ADIZ) within a week last month prompted two general aviation organizations to remind pilots to refamiliarize themselves with the restricted airspace.
On March 5 the pilot of a King Air allegedly canceled IFR at 14,500 feet. He might have thought he was above Class B airspace and clear of restricted airspace, but the ADIZ extends up to 18,000 feet.
Other pilots have been flying practice instrument procedures, not realizing that certain waypoints now fall within the ADIZ since it was reconfigured from the shape of Mickey Mouse ears to a slightly smaller circle last year. Pilots flying to and from Virginia’s Leesburg Executive Airport have also contributed to a sizable share of the violations, although a pilot education campaign is under way to curb the problem.
Although the number of pilot deviations has been on the decline since 9/11, there has been a slight increase in the past few months. The problem has been exacerbated because any intrusion in the heavily guarded airspace results in at least negative national attention and in some cases causes evacuations in Washington.
One week after the errant King Air episode, the threat level in the city was briefly raised from yellow to orange and personnel at the U.S. Capitol were ordered to prepare to evacuate after an aircraft flew into restricted airspace.
The Cessna 177RG was intercepted and escorted out of the ADIZ by two F-16s and a Coast Guard helicopter after coming within six miles of downtown. The pilot landed safely at Leesburg. The flight originated from Carroll County Regional Airport in Westminster, Md.
Although tourists were turned away from the Capitol, the building was not emptied. The threat level was soon returned to yellow (elevated) and later green (low threat) according to police and other officials in Washington. The White House was notified that an aircraft had entered the airspace and that there was some concern about it, but the aircraft turned around and security levels returned to normal.
Helicopter Association International president Matt Zuccaro reminded all aircraft operators flying near Washington to become familiar with the restrictions associated with the ADIZ and the flight restricted zone within it before conducting operations.
Heidi Williams, AOPA director of air traffic services, agreed. “Obviously, with the change in shape of the ADIZ, pilots need to re-educate themselves about the restrictions and procedures,” she said.
“Incursions like these bring the wrong kind of attention to general aviation,” said AOPA president Phil Boyer. “When pilots make mistakes like this, they jeopardize everyone’s freedom to fly. It is too easy for politicians and the public to point the finger at general aviation and respond to these incursions with more severe restrictions.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) charged that the Department of Homeland Security is failing to ensure that foreign students attending U.S. flight schools undergo background checks required by law since 2001.
“If there was ever a place for the TSA [Transportation Security Administration] to focus its efforts and beef up security, this one should be a no-brainer,” Schumer fumed in response to an ABC News report. “It is simply unbelievable that the TSA would look the other way on the gaping security loophole that led directly to the 9/11 attacks.”
A law passed after the attacks requires TSA background checks before flight instruction, but Schumer said that many of the more than 3,500 flight schools in the U.S. are enrolling foreign students before they have been cleared. The law was created after it was learned that all of the 9/11 hijackers who were involved in flying the commandeered aircraft had trained at U.S. flight schools with improper visas.
The TSA denied that the agency is lax with background checks. According to a spokesman, the agency has conducted more than 8,000 inspections at flight schools and works closely with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to ensure that only properly checked, legal aliens are attending the schools.
At a press conference, Schumer claimed that TSA enforcement is haphazard and insufficient. He sent letters to acting FAA Administrator Bobby Sturgell and TSA Administrator Kip Hawley calling for an audit and cross check of FAA certification records with the TSA in an attempt to identify who has completed the background check.
Schumer has also called for more stringent fines for any flight training organization that knowingly accepts a foreign student who should not have been certified. Currently, the FAA and TSA can impose fines ranging from $10,000 to $25,000, depending on the size of the school. The senator also stated that the TSA should do a background check on all flight-school applicants to determine if forged documents might have been used.