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Presidential TFR Violations Have Serious Ramifications for General Aviation as a Whole
August 20, 2020 – Since the dark months immediately following September 11, 2001, when general aviation was all but grounded around major metropolitan areas, and EAA along with other aviation associations were fighting for the future of personal and recreational aviation, the use of temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) increased in prevalence and size. Whereas a presidential TFR was once a three-mile restriction, today they are ten times that size — 30 nautical miles of restricted operations with a 10-mile no fly zone in the center. The closure of these massive swaths of airspace become far more frequent and unpredictable during campaign season, especially in a presidential election year.
While the level of in-person campaigning has been dramatically reduced during this presidential election cycle due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the president is still making many stops across the country, often on very short notice, resulting in pop-up presidential TFRs appearing in what otherwise might seem like unlikely places. Further, in the event that the administration changes in November, both the president-elect and the sitting president receive full security protection, thus resulting in even more TFRs.
Whenever a general aviation pilot violates a presidential TFR, a series of event is triggered across the presidential protective service, law enforcement, and the military. It is hard to overstate the seriousness with which these security services take incursions to the restricted airspace, and the response ripples from the president's immediate protective service members all the way through the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) system. The offending flight is intercepted by fighters, radio contact is attempted, and failing that, flares are released to try to gain attention. Under the gravest of circumstances, if an incursion appears to pose an imminent threat, the use of deadly force is an option — albeit the absolute last resort.
Thankfully, no incursion has resulted in a deadly outcome to date, but violations of presidential TFRs continue to happen. It is understandable that many VFR pilots who fly, day in and day out, through a given piece of airspace might have no reason to believe that today is any different. But particularly during a campaign season when TFRs are more numerous, no pilot should ever assume that there won't be a TFR along their intended route of flight. Careful pre-flight planning and checking in with Flight Service should be a part of even the most routine VFR flight.
Each time there is a GA incursion of a presidential TFR, it not only increases scrutiny on our community from the security and military services tasked with presidential protection, it hardens that viewpoint that more should be done to keep general aviation flights at an even greater distance, an issue that EAA and others have had to repeatedly fight against. Furthermore, incursions attract significant media attention as the press are often in the midst of, or at least witness to, the scramble to protect the president, drawing first-hand attention to the matter. This never fails to paint personal and recreational aviation in a negative light, something none of us want or need.
So please take extra precautions every time you fly, even for the most routine VFR flights, to ensure that your intended flight path will not come anywhere near a presidential TFR. Your extra diligence will go a long way toward ensuring that the freedom of personal flight is not further impinged upon by those mandated to provide protection to our top elected official.