Would a Fighter Pilot Shoot Down a Private Airplane?

Interceptions over restricted airspace—mostly of innocent civilians—are more common than you’d think

An F-16 with the Arizona National Guard. (162nd Fighter Wing)
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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.

About Craig Mellow

Craig Mellow, a freelance journalist who lives in Savannah, Georgia, has written for Air & Space from Russia, Western Europe, and the United States.

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