Don't Cross That Line
Would a fighter pilot shoot down a private airplane?
- By Craig Mellow
- Air & Space magazine, March 2010
USAF/SRA Dennis Young
(Page 5 of 5)
Frontline defenders of the skies seem slightly less reluctant than their commanders to pull the trigger in ambivalent circumstances. The crew members at EADS were pained by their inability to prevent the September 11 attacks, even though at the time monitoring domestic air traffic was not an Air Force mission. The welcome video shown to Rome’s rare visitors dwells in almost lurid detail on the terrible events at the World Trade Center. The staff is grimly determined never, ever, to let anything of the kind happen again. “If the order comes to terminate one of these situations, I want to be the one in the chair,” Roberts says. “Any of us would. That’s what we’re trained for.”
“We try to scale back the DoD,” says the FAA’s Miller. “They like to be forward.”
Even military intercept missions that never come to the point of shooting can be dangerous, according to some civilians. “Having an F-16 fly past a GA plane and fire flares is a good way to start a fire,” says David Wartofsky, co-owner of Potomac Airfield, one of the general aviation strips still operating within the FRZ.
Maryland Airport’s Bauserman claims to have witnessed a near-collision between a Coast Guard helicopter and a Piper Cherokee 140 it was escorting to the ground (the Cherokee’s pilot happened to work at the Transportation Security Administration). “The helicopter was in the Cherokee’s path when it made a left turn to land, and the helicopter pilot had to fly underneath it to get out of its way,” Bauserman recalls.
Yet even these libertarians admit that airborne security has become less heavy-handed with time. For one thing, the role of the F-16s’ helicopter adjunct is no longer carried out by hard-ass Customs and Border Protection squads in Blackhawks. “The Customs guys are used to confronting armed drug dealers and bringing a lot of force to bear quickly,” says Wartofsky. Thus the M-16s at the ready to overpower hapless hobbyist pilots. Now the helicopter mission is carried out by amiable Coast Guard crews in Dolphins. “The Coast Guard is used to rescuing ships in distress, so they are a bit more constrained.”
And some sources of confusion have been cleared up. Until August 2007, the 30-mile restricted area around Washington was an ungainly irregular shape variously nicknamed the Teddy Bear or Mickey Mouse. Now it is a near-perfect circle, harder to infringe upon accidentally. Gone too are the mini-TFRs that in the traumatized period after September 11 the FAA used to grant liberally. “For a while, any small-town mayor could call his Congressman and get a three-mile flight restriction zone declared because there was a football game on Friday night,” Wartofsky says. “It was a nightmare.”
So take heart that in the years since 9/11, there has been neither an attack nor a tragic misunderstanding. But if you are out flying, and you find an F-16 on your tail, do whatever the pilot says.
Craig Mellow is a frequent contributor.