I fly from KVKX because it is very convenient to my home in Alexandria, VA. Gaining authorization to fly in and out of KVKX (and the FRZ) required a certain amount of jumping through hoops but once that was accomplished the whole program has been, as they say, transparent to the user. Until tonight.
Here's how it works (and I'm going to confine this discussion to IFR operations. VFR has its own idiosyncrasies.) Whether outbound or inbound, I file an ordinary IFR flight plan by telephone through the Lockheed-Martin Flight Service Station (FSS) in Leesburg, using a toll-free number dedicated to FRZ operations. Sometimes the FSS Specialist that answers the telephone is in Raleigh, but that makes no difference.
I go through the normal IFR Flight Plan sequence with the Specialist and then he/she asks me, "Are you familiar with the procedures governing operations in the Washington, DC Special Flight Rules Area and the Flight Restricted Zone?" I then say, "Yes, I am!" The next question is, "What is your PIN?"
All pilots that have been "vetted" to operate into and out of the FRZ and the "Maryland 3" airports have been issued a Personal Identification Number (PIN). When I give my PIN to the FSS Specialist, he/she verifies it against a master list, and if it agrees with his/her list then he/she will (one fervently hopes) enter certain appropriate remarks into the "Remarks" field of my IFR flight plan. Then, when ATC pulls up the Flight Plan as I approach the FRZ (in the inbound case), the remarks make it clear that I am authorized to enter the FRZ and land at KVKX. It all works very nicely. Except when the remarks aren't there.
Which brings us to tonight, over Baltimore. It had been an uneventful flight down from Connecticut, and I was looking forward, as I crossed over the top of KBWI, to getting home. Then, I got a radio call:
- PCT: "N631 Sierra, Potomac?"
- Me: "631 Sierra."
- PCT: "Uh...just to let you know, there's some sort of problem with the remarks in your flight plan and we're trying to work it out...but we may not be able to let you into the FRZ...so you may want to start thinking about an alternate. For now, continue on your heading and maintain 6,000."
- Me: "...OK...present heading, maintain 6,000, 631 Sierra."
I continued southbound toward the Nottingham VOR (OTT), and thought about options. Easton, MD (KESN) was the best choice if I had to land outside the FRZ. From there I could call FSS and sort out the problem and then it would be a short flight back home. Then:
- PCT: "631 Sierra, we're not going to be able to let you into the FRZ. Say intentions?"
- Me: "I'd like to divert to Easton."
- PCT: "Skylane 31 Sierra, fly heading 160, direct Easton when able."
I turned to the east and started to gather up frequencies and such for an arrival at KESN (see track above, courtesy of FlightAware.com). Just as I had all of that more or less squared away, the controller came back to me:
- PCT: "631S, we've got it worked out! Turn right to heading 250, descend to 2,000, vectors for KVKX. And for what it's worth from my end, I apologize for all this."
- Me: "31 Sierra, right turn to 250, down to 2,000, and no apology needed. I really appreciate you folks going the extra mile to get this cleared up."
The remaining 15 minutes of the flight were uneventful. N631S and I landed at KVKX; I put the airplane to bed in the hangar and on the way out I stopped to give Potomac Approach a call.
- PCT: "Mount Vernon approach."
- Me: "Hi, I'm the pilot of N631S; there was some confusion about the remarks for FRZ entry on my IFR flight plan and I'm wondering what went wrong."
- PCT: "It was an FSS mistake. I pulled up your strip and the remarks weren't there. I know you come down every Friday, so I called NCRC (National Capital Region Coordination) and said 'Where are his remarks'? They didn't have the remarks. I got the supervisor involved and I guess he checked the tapes and he called back and said, 'he's OK, he should have the remarks.'
- Me: "I guess they went back and listened to the tapes from this morning when I filed."
- PCT: "Yeah, you filed at 12:08(Z), right? That's what they did. Again, I'm really sorry about all this."
- Me: "And again, I really thank you folks for taking the trouble to get this squared away."
Have I mentioned that I love Air Traffic Controllers? Tomorrow I'm going to give LockMart FSS a call to see if they have any ideas for avoiding a recurrence of the problem.