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.


Cedarglen said...

Excellent, Frank. There are multiple ways to solve a problem like you've described, and ranting about the government is certainly not one of them. While flying, you are obligated to fly as directed and work though the problem - after - a unwelcome diversion and a safe landing. They beat you too it. And yes, I can see that less familiar, less thinking pilot still trying to be polite, saying something like "Thank you. Please double check. Skylane 631 Sierra's PIN Number is 1234." Some would have done it. Best wishes, -C.

Frank Van Haste said...

It was immediately obvious to me that there was nothing that I could do about the situation sitting in the airplane, other than request the least inconvenient diversion field. Fortunately, as you pointed out, the controllers at PCT kept working the problem (instead of just saying, "Not our job - he'll work it out when he lands.") They could have done that easily, but the folks at PCT just don't work that way.

Thanks, as always, for stopping by, Craig.


Chris said...

Whew... When I read the title of your post, I feared that you had received an up close aerial demonstration from the military.

I often feel very fortunate to interact with the outstanding ATC folks that I do. I wish there was a more meaningful way to recognize someone who went above and beyond than a terse, if heartfelt, "thanks" on the radio.

Glad you made it home, Frank.

Comrade Misfit said...

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?

Frank Van Haste said...

Chris, with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, I apologize for using a post title that implied a more dramatic chain of events than that which actually occurred.

As to doing something more than a heartfelt "Thanks!" for the ATC folks, a couple of years ago I had a wx encounter (described HERE, where I felt that the controller had been just superb. I tracked down (via a friend with good connections in the ATC world) the e-mail address for the TRACON supe at Allentown and sent a fully descriptive e-mail describing what had happened and why it was outstanding (with times and frequencies noted). A couple of weeks later I got an e-mail from the controller involved. She was really appreciative of the "attagirl" -- said they get the complaints all the time, the compliments rarely. So, if you get a controller that really goes above and beyond, send along a compliment. It does matter.

Best regards,


Frank Van Haste said...

Dear Miss Fit:

"Why KESN", indeed. I read your question a couple of hours ago and have been thinkin' about it. It deserves more than a comment reply -- I'll do a post in response shortly.


Royski said...

The same thing has happened to me three times when trying to return to VKX. Twice ATC sorted it out in the air while I orbited (probably the same way they fixed it for you) and the other time they had me call FSS who "re-submitted" the flight plan. Sometimes security theatre can be a real inconvenience.

Frank Van Haste said...

Royski, were these all recent instances, or spread out over time?


Royski said...

They were pretty spread out - the most recent was about two years ago with about a year between incidents.

Frank Van Haste said...

Thanks, Royski. I was afraid we might be looking at a new and unpleasant pattern, but I guess it's a bunch of isolated incidents.