“Everyone gets one. I hope you never need to use it.”
These were my words as I handed out the kneeboard-sized pamphlet on NORAD intercept procedures to my private pilot ground school. The pamphlets—which are also available as a PDF that can be uploaded to a tablet—outline the procedures a pilot should follow in the event they are intercepted by military jets—ostensibly for violating a temporary flight restriction put in place to protect the President of the United States.
The learners immediately started asking questions—how do we know when the POTUS is coming to town? What if I am flying across the country and accidentally run into a TFR? Can they shoot us down? Do you lose your certificate forever? These are valid questions.
Check Those Notices to Air Missions
The way you know the President or any other VIP that garners a TFR is coming to town is by checking the notices to air missions or NOTAMs. This falls under FAR 91.103, which states “each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight become familiar with all available information concerning that flight.”
NOTAMs can cover everything from ramp closures and navaids out of service to TFRs that are in place for a variety of reasons. Basically, anytime civilian aircraft would create a hazard such as over forest fires, police actions, sporting events, search and rescue, or large groups of people outdoors, a TFR can be created.
The POTUS TFR is the big one, in every sense of the word. The POTUS travels in a 30 nautical mile bubble that is often patrolled by F-16s and air tankers to support them.
Presidential visits are not surprises. They are well planned and well orchestrated and have all the spontaneity of rocket launch.
The FAA issues a notice of the impending TFR several days in advance along with the time the TFR activates, its duration and scope of size. I have worked at flight schools where we ferried aircraft to a satellite operation farther away from Seattle in advance of the TFR so we wouldn’t lose business that day. Other times when this was not possible, there was a sign up in the lobby warning people about the TFR and the phone was answered that day with something to the effect of “Thank you for calling (insert school name here). We’re not flying today—the President is in town.”
Violate the POTUS TFR?
If you violate the POTUS TFR expect to be intercepted by a pair of F-16s scrambled by NORAD—they don’t just track Santa at Christmas time, they are always watching the skies. Their job is to determine if the aircraft is a threat to the President or the United States. Fortunately, this is rarely the case—but the fighters still have to do their job.
In some cases, the fighters will be scrambled from a “nearby” air base—and they will be hauling you-know-what to get to the target. A few years ago a pilot from outside Washington violated the POTUS TFR and the jets that came up from Portland were traveling so fast they triggered a sonic boom. I was standing on the ramp at my airport doing a ground lesson when we heard it and everyone said the same thing: “Someone just busted the TFR!”
Later, the local news interviewed the pilot who said he was unaware of the POTUS visit and the TFR.
Not knowing about a TFR does not excuse, notes Ian Arendt of AOPA Legal Services, adding that a pilot who violates a TFR, any TFR, will likely be talking with the FAA, and if it’s a POTUS TFR, the Secret Service as well.
Check the Weather, NOTAMs
Checking NOTAMs is usually part of the weather briefing, and there are certain times of year when particular TFRs, such as those for wildland fires, are more common. This is one of the reasons flight following is so handy—if a TFR pops up during your flight ATC, it can warn you about it. In addition, if the pilot is using GPS or ForeFlight, these tools show a graphical depiction of the TFR on the screen.
Unfortunately, some pilots—including CFIs—can get lazy, especially when flying on a “good weather” day and in familiar airspace. These pop up TFRs can be triggered by fires, police activity, even sudden natural disasters like a landslide.
“Flying into a TFR, any TFR, will be a violation,” Arendt says. “People bust a TFR due to the fact they are comfortable where they are flying and think they don’t need to check the weather or NOTAMs, and they are flying on the wrong day at the wrong time.”
Who Is Responsible?
The FARs tell us that the pilot in command (PIC) is the person responsible for the flight, therefore, that’s the person whose certificate is on the line if a TFR is violated. However, if the violation happens during an instructional flight and the other pilot is a student, the CFI is usually held accountable. If the flight involves a CFI and another pilot, responsibility can get a little fuzzy.
In some cases, if the violation is severe enough, the FAA can go after both the pilots, Arendt says. “Both pilots can be held accountable if the FAA determines it is one of those things that anyone who is a certified pilot should know.”
We Check That You Check (the NOTAMs)
Most CFIs do check the NOTAMs, even if they are not going to be on the flight. This is especially in a Part 61 training environment as the CFI is held accountable for the actions of the student pilots flying on their certificate. That means if the CFI has endorsed you for solo or for a particular cross-country, we are responsible, and if a FAR is violated, we’re probably going to hear about it too.
On the advice of a much more experienced CFI than myself, I started adding a line to my cross-country endorsements that reads “weather checked as of (insert time) and NOTAMs checked as of (insert time).” The learner is required to initial that they have completed these tasks, but of course those are just words, and sometimes it’s up to the learners to follow through with FAR 91.103.
One day, a fellow CFI and myself decided to make a contest of it to see if our learners were actually doing as they had been instructed.
The coworker noted that the automated weather of a particular airport was NOTAM’d out of service on a particular day. We both had private pilot candidates who were slated to do solo cross-country flights to that airport. Both were at the end of their private pilot training. We wondered if they were going to have any issues with the flight—as neither mentioned the NOTAM, other than to assure us they had been checked when we reviewed their flight plans, so we sent them on their way.
My colleague’s learner returned first. When asked if he’d had any issue accessing the automated weather at the destination. The pilot replied he had not. The colleague suddenly sported “dad face” as he brought the NOTAM to the pilot’s attention and a discussion followed.
My learner returned a few minutes later. He reported that he had seen the NOTAM, so he used the automated weather from the nearest airport—which was some 10 miles away—and overflew the runway paying special attention to the windsock. He landed without issue.
“If you couldn’t see the windsock what would you do?” I asked.
He looked at me like I was crazy. “Go to my alternate!” he declared.