The Glass Is Half Full


I have done my share of carping about the many new airspace and operational regulations imposed by the FAA and TSA since the terrorist attacks on September 11th. But now that I have taken my head out of the overheated atmosphere of New York and Washington, I realize that we pilots who fly for personal and business reasons have actually been affected very little.

I came to this startling realization-at least startling for somebody who lives and flies in the New York City orbit-while basking in the sun at Hope Town, on Elbow Cay in the Bahamas in March. Through the mixed blessing of satellite television reaching this slender island of coral and sand I had learned that a war was starting in Iraq and that unspecified airspace restrictions had been imposed over New York City.

Here I was, in another country, with nothing but an airplane key in my pocket to get back home. All the images of people being stuck on the ground after 9/11, and being closed out of their own country for much longer, popped into my mind. Being stuck in Hope Town is not a bad thing, but all vacations must end as we return to pay the bills.

I'm not a New Yorker. I'm a Great Lakes boy from northeast Ohio. I'm only here because that's where Flying magazine resides and I would do most anything to work for the best aviation magazine in the country. But after living in the New York City environs for more than 13 years on this round, the relentless propaganda had succeeded. I had begun to believe that I was important, and that the rest of the world was out to get me.

Washingtonians believe that they live in the center of the universe, but New Yorkers are certain that they do. Everything important-good or bad-involves those two cities. People who live there have felt that way for years, but the terrorist attacks reinforced that conviction. After all, the terrorists selected the two most important places in the world to make the largest possible impact. The whole world revolves around these two cities, and with the major media all located here, the entire country gets a round-the-clock dose of how it looks from here. I had been sucked into this attitude of hubris mixed with paranoia and believed that the rest of the United States behaved like New York.

With only a little effort I was able to contact the Miami FSS. I told the FSS specialist that I had heard about new airspace restrictions on the news and wondered if I could get back into the country from the Bahamas, and then back to New York City.

The briefer snickered over the part about getting back from the Bahamas. Everything was totally normal. File the flight plan, either IFR or D-VFR, be in radar contact by the time you neared the air defense identification zone (ADIZ) and that was it. It's been that way for decades, except for the hectic period right after 9/11.

I felt a little embarrassed. The government wasn't out to get me-an unenthusiastic New Yorker-after all. But what about the "new" airspace restrictions over the New York City area? That took a little digging for the briefer to find because nobody else had asked her about it.

It turned out that the FAA and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) had created an ADIZ around New York City with dimensions roughly the same as the Class B airspace. I wasn't surprised because they had done the same thing around the Washington area before I had left for the Bahamas.

An ADIZ doesn't exactly fit the rule in this application because the FAA defines an ADIZ as an identification zone that separates domestic airspace from international airspace, or the airspace of another nation. The ADIZ areas around New York and Washington fall entirely within U.S. domestic airspace.

But the ADIZ is a handy off-the-shelf rule that does what the TSA wants because it forces every airplane crossing the ADIZ boundary to be positively radar identified with an assigned transponder code, be in continuous communication with ATC and to have filed and opened a VFR or IFR flight plan. Any airplane flying legally in the Class B would have an assigned transponder code and be talking to ATC in any case, but the requirement for the flight plan gives the TSA access to information about the pilot, his home base, planned route and so on. And it doesn't permit non-identified flying under the layers of the Class B airspace.

Any ADIZ is totally transparent to IFR pilots, who in the normal course of an IFR flight fulfill all of the requirements. It is, however, an extra hassle for VFR pilots because every flight requires a flight plan that must be opened and closed with FSS. The requirement for continuous communication with ATC when flying VFR inside the ADIZ area was relaxed a little for pilots staying in the pattern at uncontrolled airports, where they are permitted to use unicom while still squawking the assigned code, but a flight plan is still required.

By my count there are fewer than 20 general aviation airports inside the ADIZ airspace over Washington and New York, and VFR pilots who fly in and out of there are certainly inconvenienced. But there are more than 5,000 airports in the rest of the country. A very tiny minority of general aviation pilots are being affected by continuing restrictions from the FAA and TSA.

I flew from Marsh Harbor in the Bahamas to Fort Pierce in Florida to clear customs, and everything was absolutely normal in terms of ATC. The customs agents at Fort Pierce, who deal only with general aviation pilots, were the same as they have always been, thorough in examining paperwork but prompt and courteous with no apparent heightened state of alert. If you know the paperwork required-and most south Florida FBOs will help you organize it-customs is no more of a hassle than unloading the luggage and hauling it into the building.

The flight home to Westchester County, New York, from Fort Pierce was as absolutely normal as any IFR flight can be. The only hint of a change in procedures caused by the war and heightened state of terrorist alert was a lengthy description of the ADIZ requirements on the ATIS broadcast at Westchester. I even heard the controller assign a code for a pilot to fly VFR down the Hudson River on the west side of Manhattan.

None of us wants to see our rights and privileges as pilots reduced in any way. But I think we have lost perspective about the changes that have taken place since the terrorist attacks. And people like me are partly to blame.

The national media, the aviation press and the aviation alphabet lobby groups are centered in Washington and New York. Because the media and lobby groups' home turf is affected, we naturally extend that condition to the rest of the country. But it's not true. All I have to do is fly around the rest of this huge country to realize how normal things really are. And because I fly IFR all of the time, there really are no identifiable restrictions, except that I can no longer fly into Washington National Airport, or three small general aviation airports near the District of Columbia.

So I'm going to stop complaining about restrictions on my flying. The glass isn't half full; it's 99 percent full. Stay away from New York and Washington and the glass runs over. Let's not let the self-important people who dominate the news outside these two cities ruin the flying fun for everybody else, because the general aviation system is working remarkably well.


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