Check Notams

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It seems like one of the simplest flights possible. Grab your flight bag and head off to the airport to practice some touch-and-goes. There is obviously no need for flight planning. The weather is beautiful and forecast to stay that way, so there is no need to check the weather. You are not planning to leave the pattern, so there is no need to plot a route or check DUAT.

One pilot who took this approach got a rude awakening about the importance of carefully planning each and every flight. As reported in NASA's March Callback newsletter, the pilot happily took off at his local airport to do some pattern work. Almost immediately he was contacted by the local FBO, who informed him that they had been contacted by the Transportation Security Administration and asked to notify whoever had just taken off to land immediately.

It turned out there was a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) restricting flights within a 30-mile radius of the nearby large metropolitan airport. The smaller airport he had taken off from was 25 miles from the center of the TFR, and thus was included in the restricted airspace. The pilot immediately landed, taxied off the runway, shut down the engine, and waited for the TSA inspector to provide further instructions. While the newsletter does not tell us if there were any lasting consequences for the pilot involved, I'm sure at the time his mouth was very dry and his heart was pounding as he waited to learn the consequences of his transgression from the TSA inspector.

I have to admit that this pilot could have been me. There are many times that I have headed down to my home airport for a short local flight without calling a Flight Service Station or getting a DUAT briefing. With the many security rules put into place after 9/11, it is critical to check notams before every flight, no matter how short. Also, because a new TFR can be put in place with no advance notice, it is better to check just before departure. On a long VFR cross-country flight it would be a good idea to check with flight service occasionally, or stay in contact with ATC for flight following.

If all this seems like overkill, consider the potential consequences of transgressing into a TFR:

Pilots who do not adhere to the following procedures may be intercepted, detained and interviewed by law enforcement/security personnel. Any of the following additional actions may also be taken against a pilot who does not comply with the requirements or any special instructions or procedures announced in this Notam: a) the FAA may take administrative action, including imposing civil penalties and the suspension or revocation of airmen certificates; or b) the United States government may pursue criminal charges, including charges under title 49 of the United States code, section 46307; or c) the United States government may use deadly force against the airborne aircraft, if it is determined that the aircraft poses an imminent security threat.

In plain English, you can lose your license, receive civil or criminal penalties, or even be shot down. It doesn't get more serious than that!

I almost fell prey to the fact that flight restrictions can change without advance notice. When everything was grounded after 9/11 I was stuck in Lander, Wyoming. I was in regular contact with flight service trying to determine when I would be able to head home. After a couple of days I was informed that the airspace would be opened to general aviation aircraft at 9 a.m. that morning. I preflighted my Twin Comanche, and at 8:55 a.m. was just about to get in and start my engines when the pilot of the only other airplane on the ramp came running over to tell me that his office had just called to inform him that the government had changed its mind and the airspace would still be closed. I still shudder as I imagine the F-16s intercepting me as I blithely started home thinking everything was ok.

There are other critical reasons to check notams besides avoiding restricted airspace. A pilot set off from an airport in the Phoenix area to my home airport in Payson to enjoy breakfast at the Crosswinds restaurant. He had enough gas to get to Payson, but would need to get gas to make it back home to Phoenix. Since it was a short flight in a familiar area the pilot didn't bother to check with flight service or DUAT for active notams. If he had he would have learned there was a notam that Payson was closed that day to do work on the runway.

The pilot arrived over Payson, found people and equipment on the runway, and learned on the CTAF that the airport was closed. Because of Payson's remote location, there was nowhere else within range of his fuel endurance at that point where he could get gas. Fortunately they were able to clear the runway and allow the pilot to land. He had plenty of time as he ate his breakfast to consider how foolish it is to take off on a flight to an airport when you don't have enough fuel to get to an alternate airport in case that airport is closed by a crash or other event. He also learned the hard way how important it is to check notams before every flight, no matter how simple or short that flight might be.

The Airman's Information Manual puts it very succinctly:

"Notam information is that aeronautical information that could affect a pilot's decision to make a flight. It includes such information as airport or primary runway closures, changes in the status of navigational aids, ILSes, radar service availability, and other information essential to planned en route, terminal or landing operations."

FAR 91.103 mandates that "each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with all available information concerning that flight." Notams provide some of the most critical information a pilot might need, so call flight service or log onto DUAT to check for notams before every flight.