Saturday, August 17, 2013


In my last post, I described a bit of a kerfuffle that resulted when the system misplaced my authorization to land at my home airfield, KVKX, lying as it does within the DC Flight Restricted Zone (FRZ). This required that I divert to an alternate airfield outside of the FRZ and I chose Easton, MD (KESN) as my safe harbor. In a comment to the post describing all of this, my friend Comrade Misfit asked, "Why Easton? Wouldn't it have been rather inconvenient to get home from the Eastern Shore if you couldn't have gotten the mess ironed out?"

I saw Miss Fit's comment a few hours ago and since, I've been reflecting on that decision. Why KESN, indeed? I think that the decision involved both conscious and sub-conscious factors that were focused, in the end, on ensuring that the pilot (i.e., me) did not wind up well behind the airplane.

N631S and I have been flying to and fro between the DC area and Connecticut for about five years. In that time, I've diverted at the south end to Manassas (KHEF) twice that I recall, and once to Easton (KESN). At the north end I've had two diversions to Bradley International (KBDL), one to Hartford-Brainerd (KHFD), two to Waterbury-Oxford (KOXC) and one to New Haven (KHVN). In every one of these cases, the diversion was due to weather. Each time I had at least 45 minutes, often an hour or more, to think over what was going to happen. Sure, I flew the ILS Runway 6 at KBDR, but I knew that the probability of making a landing was low, and I had 'Plan B' ready. Last Friday was a wholly different kettle of fish.

Friday afternoon, I was presented with a situation ("We're not going to be able to let you into the FRZ") that required a very short term resolution ("Say intentions"). There was no opportunity for an extended period of reflection and evaluation. It was all about, "OK, Frank, where are you gonna put the airplane?"

The first criterion was to divert to a field outside the FRZ that I was very familiar with. That reduced down to Manassas, Gaithersburg and Easton. Perhaps I could have made Freeway work, but I've never landed there and I'd have only minutes to familiarize myself with it's location and characteristics.

Of the fields I was familiar with, I immediately felt that Easton was the most attractive. From present position, just south of Baltimore, Easton was less than 15 minutes away. I was confident that the problem was some sort of foul-up in getting the right "secret code" in the remarks field of my flight plan, and a new flight plan would resolve the issue. If that was the case the diversion, with the need to file a new flight plan, would cost me an hour. Manassas was, on the other hand, a good 30 minutes away and probably represented at least a 90 minute delay. Gaithersburg would be worse.

What if the problem was something completely different? What if the system had "forgotten" me, and there was no way I was going to fly into the FRZ on this evening? Well, I knew I could rent a car at either Easton or Manassas. The FBO's at both fields are superbly helpful. The drive home to Alexandria from Manassas would be a bit over an hour. From Easton, about an hour and a half. I knew...I've done both.

Given my confidence that a new flight plan entered into the system would resolve the issue, and given that the drive from KESN was only a little longer than the drive from KHEF (if that proved necessary)...then KESN was the right choice for the divert. And that's what I told Potomac Approach I wanted to do.

All of that decision making occurred in about two minutes. Some of it happened at a sub-conscious level. I never really thought about any field that I was not already familiar with. Freeway (W00) and it's ilk were rejected without conscious reflection. I thought of KGAI and quickly passed on it. Manassas (KHEF) got 30 seconds of attention, and didn't compare well with Easton. And that was the end of the story. Easton it would be.

When I told the PCT controller that I wanted to divert to Easton, he was ready immediately with a vector. The GPS told me that N631S and I would arrive at KESN in about 12 minutes. But before half of that time had elapsed, I got the welcome news that the problem had been resolved and I could proceed into the FRZ and on to KVKX.

After I landed and put N631S away in the hangar, and talked to Potomac Approach, I felt fairly good about the whole exercise. I'd had to deal with an unexpected diversion, sort out the options and select a diversion field, prepare for an arrival at an unplanned destination, and then switch back to the originally planned terminus – all in a compressed time-frame. Throughout, I had good help from ATC, but I felt pretty good about my ability to keep all of the balls in the air.

Friday, August 16, 2013

A Starring Role in "Security Theater"

Home Plate for N631S and myself in the DC area is Potomac Airfield (KVKX). It's one of the "Maryland 3" airports (along with College Park (KCGS) and Hyde Field (W32)) that reside within the Flight Restricted Zone (FRZ), a circle (more or less) of airspace with a 14 nautical mile radius surrounding the DCA VOR. (See chart at left, below.)

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.