24 August 2002
The Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2002
By J. LYNN LUNSFORD
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
WACO, Texas -- As he swooped over the rich cotton fields beside the Brazos River in his crop-dusting plane last week, Sam Muse thought his biggest worry was whether he had enough insecticide aboard to finish spraying for boll weevils.
Then he landed at a nearby airport and was handcuffed to await the Secret Service. Unbeknownst to him, he and his bright yellow airplane had flown into the middle of a 20-mile no-fly zone set up that morning to protect President Bush during an economic summit at nearby Baylor University.
For two hours, Mr. Muse, along with flying-service owner Rick Ranspot and two other employees, waited in the shade next to a hangar under the watchful eyes of a local cop and a state trooper. Finally, a Secret Service agent arrived and questioned them, quickly determining that the only danger Mr. Muse posed was to weevils.
"I have to tell you, I was pretty shook up about the whole thing. I still am," said the 52-year-old pilot. "I'm a law-abiding citizen."
Mr. Muse's wait in the Texas heat was nothing compared with the reception many pilots get when they wander into the restricted area that follows the president wherever he goes. On the same day Mr. Muse was flying, a pilot working for a pipeline company violated the same airspace and was greeted by three helicopter gunships. Others have found themselves facing F-16 fighter jets that are part of an airborne armada constantly hovering over the president's Crawford ranch.
In the wake of Sept. 11, scrutiny of the president's airspace has grown intense, largely because government officials believe it is possible for a small plane to be used in an attack. In the first nine months last year, the Federal Aviation Administration took action against three pilots for violating restricted areas around Mr. Bush's ranch. Since Sept. 11, the FAA has taken action against 24 pilots. About eight other post-Sept. 11 cases are pending.
Yet despite the threat of Secret Service questioning and potential sanctions from the FAA, the number of errant pilots continues to increase. Since the beginning of August, more than half a dozen pilots have flown too close to the president's ranch -- where most of the airspace violations occur -- despite ample news coverage of his month-long working vacation there. Officials say they wouldn't be surprised if another seven or eight violate the no-fly zone before Mr. Bush returns to Washington on Sept. 5.
Part of the problem is that pilots don't know where the restricted space begins and ends. Even though a six-mile circle around the ranch is clearly marked as prohibited on aviation charts, that applies only when the president isn't there.
When he is in residence, the circle expands to whatever distance his security detail sees fit. Last year when Russian President Vladimir Putin visited, the circle grew to 30 miles in diameter. This month, the forbidden radius is 20 miles. The military's Air Defense Command had initially requested an 80-mile circle to give fighter jets more time to respond to a potential threat. But that request was nixed by the FAA since such a large area would have affected the approach paths into Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, one of the nation's four busiest airports.
"You almost have to be the president's social secretary to know whether it's safe to fly down there anymore," says Don Jordan, an Arlington, Texas, pilot who says he decided to avoid the area completely after a friend of his got in trouble there.
Compounding the problem is that the ranch is located in an area that is only slightly more topographically distinctive than a cornfield. The countryside is marked by gently rolling limestone hills and cedar trees that rarely grow taller than 10 or 15 feet. The shallow Brazos meanders a few miles away.
"We've still got some work to do there as far as helping pilots avoid the airspace around Crawford," acknowledges Bill Peacock, the FAA's air-traffic manager.
Pilots who do phone ahead and obtain a preflight briefing from the FAA are warned about the temporary restrictions around the president's ranch and are encouraged to contact the Waco control tower anytime they are within 30 miles of the area for assistance in avoiding the no-fly zone.
Small planes flying through restricted areas around presidential retreats have been a problem for decades, although the response from the government has been more dramatic in recent months. Even today, one of the most-violated restricted areas in the nation is the one over Camp David, the president's Maryland retreat 70 miles northwest of Washington. Since last fall's terrorist attacks, the government has added more than 35 restricted areas, such as the airspace over power plants, weapons arsenals and oil depots. None of the 35 areas are depicted on FAA aeronautical charts.
"Pilots just can't hop into their airplanes and go flying like they used to. They have to make sure they know the areas to avoid, which isn't always that clear," said Warren Morningstar, spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. He said that the association is continuing to push the FAA to make sure that the location of each restricted area is explained in plain language, preferably with maps posted on both AOPA and FAA Web sites.
|See FAA Special NOTAMs:
Source of flight restricted maps:
|Crawford, TX, Flight Restricted Area
More on Crawford: http://cryptome.org/prez-eyeball.htm
|Camp David, MD, Flight Restricted Area
More on Camp David: http://cryptome.org/david-eyeball.htm
|Washington, DC, Flight Restricted Area
More on Washington, DC: http://cryptome.org/tri-eyeballs.htm
Most of the airplanes that violated the president's airspace were small single-engine planes, according to FAA records. One airline pilot violated the airspace in his own single-engine plane and was counseled, only to violate it again a couple of weeks later while showing his passengers how he had messed up the first time.
Few who violate the prohibited area around Crawford get away unscathed. Once the Secret Service is finished with them, pilots face further enforcement action from the FAA. Although the Secret Service says it found that none of the pilots meant any harm, the FAA has imposed punishments ranging from remedial training to 60-day-license suspensions and in one case, a fine of $3,300.
One transgressor was Allen Wyche, a 75-year-old chiropractor who had been riding in the co-pilot's seat of his single-engine airplane as his partner, J. Don Walker, practiced instrument approaches at the Waco airport last December, while the president was at the ranch. On one pass, they turned to the west and were quickly intercepted by an F-16. "I tapped Don on the shoulder and said, 'Look at that. The pilot's got blue eyes, a real nice-looking fellow.' "
The men returned to Spinks Airport in far south Fort Worth, where an air-traffic controller notified them that they needed to contact the Secret Service. The FAA later decided both men had to take a remedial ground-school course and fly with an instructor.
So far, with one exception, none of the airplanes have come close enough to the president to pose a threat. That single incident occurred on April 26, 2001, when two Cessna 152s piloted by student pilots passed 3,000 feet almost directly above the president's helicopter, Marine One, as it was leaving the ranch with Mr. Bush aboard. The students were detained by the Secret Service but were released when one of them played back a tape of his preflight briefing in which a San Angelo briefer failed to warn them about the restricted airspace.
The president had no fighter jet escort that pre-Sept. 11 day. Now, any time he's around, there's a 24-hour canopy of airplanes equipped with guns and missiles and orders to shoot down violators, if necessary.
One incident occurred shortly after Sept. 11, when all private airplanes were grounded out of concern about further terrorist activity. A pilot in his 70s who lives near Crawford thought it was OK to fly again, so he hopped into his airplane and promptly set off alarms at the nearby Waco control tower. He was forced by F-16s to land at a nearby airport and was then escorted to Waco for questioning.
Later that evening, as people familiar with the event recount the episode, he and the Secret Service agents who gave him a ride home were greeted by the man's wife, who came charging out of their house, wiping her hands on her apron. "You dumbass!" she chided. "I told you not to go flying!" The man turned to the agents and said, "Can I go back to Waco with y'all?"
Write to J. Lynn Lunsford at firstname.lastname@example.org
Updated August 22, 2002