The mother of all temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) is coming next weekend, and it’s not just because of Super Bowl 50. Word has it that right after the big event, President Obama is headed to the San Francisco area for more Democrat fundraising, and of course this means further disruptions of the airspace that is vital to general aviation operations.
When I was discussing this recently with a local FBO, the oft-cited but still-valid point came up: TFRs are designed to keep out general aviation aircraft but permit airlines to continue operating, and airline aircraft were the unfortunate victims and tools used in the 9/11 attacks. So why the focus on GA operations in so many TFRs?
It has been pointed out that the authorities that are the deciders on matters of national security have a level of comfort with airlines, because it is much easier to know who is at the controls, but with general aviation, anyone could be flying. It has also been pointed out that no TFR can protect anything inside a TFR, without some kind of defensive force to protect the targets. Most TFRs do not have such a force.
However, in this case we know that there are airborne forces protecting the TFR. The Civil Air Patrol (CAP) has been helping the U.S. Air Force practice interception of general aviation aircraft for the past 15 years and recently did so in preparation for Super Bowl 50. According to the CAP, “Since the terroristic attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the [FAA] routinely implements ‘no-fly zones’ referred to as a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) around major events like the Super Bowl. Airspace around the venue is restricted from all general aviation traffic for a specified radius to ensure no aircraft enter. The TFR is enforced by the U.S. Air Force, which has fighter aircraft patrolling the area during the time of the restriction.”
For Super Bowl 50, the TFR begins at 2 p.m. local time on Sunday, February 7 and constructs 10- and 32-nm rings up to 18,000 feet centered on Levi’s Stadium in San Jose, Calif. The TFR ends at 11:59 p.m. local the same day, although NBAA pointed out that the TFR is usually lifted an hour or two after the game. Inside the 10-nm ring, no general aviation operations will be allowed, but of course Mineta San Jose International Airport is within that 10-nm ring, and it would be politically impossible to ground the airlines, so they get to keep flying. Outside the 10-nm ring and inside the 32-nm ring, the only type of flying allowed is on an active IFR flight plan. This shuts down most operations at Half Moon Bay, Hayward, Byron, Livermore, Tracy, South County, Watsonville and San Carlos airports. Palo Alto and Reid-Hillview are inside the 10-nm ring, so they are hosed for the duration.
Every time TFRs like this occur, the aviation alphabet groups warn their members to abide by the rules and not to violate this sacrosanct airspace. Of course, this is good advice, and a violation can get a pilot into instant trouble. But I can’t help pointing out that the only entities ever caught by TFRs have been pilots inadvertently straying into airspace that they failed to check on before takeoff, or that popped up suddenly while they were flying. Defended TFRs such as this one for the Super Bowl might be able to prevent a terrorist act, but the vast majority of TFRs, including the permanent TFRs over Disneyland and Disney World, are not equipped with squadrons of F-16s or anti-aircraft missile batteries and are therefore useless.