Transient ops at the ‘DC-3’ — at last

The infamous “DC-3” airports — the three general aviation fields inside the Flight Restricted Zone around Washington, D.C. — are once again open to transient traffic.

Well, sort of.

Open, that is, to anyone who wants to go through the Transportation Security Administration’s vetting process. For the DC-3, that means being fingerprinted at Reagan National Airport (DCA), going through a complete background check, and following very specific rules when flying to or from any of the three airports. Since GA aircraft can’t fly into Reagan National, pilots willing to jump through the hoops must get there by land. The whole process can take several days.

College Park Airport (CGS), Potomac Airfield (VKX) and Washington Executive/Hyde Field (W32) have been closed to transients since they were reopened to their own tenants and law enforcement operations in February 2002, following complete closure after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Those operations were under Special FAR 94, which expired Feb. 12 — the day the new rule was announced.

Without that action, the three airports would have been forced to shut down completely when the special FAA rule expired.

While the change certainly won’t restore anything like profitability to the airports, there are signs that it will be helpful. Stan Fetter, manager of Washington Executive/Hyde Field, says that he had “about 25 inquiries” between Feb. 12 and 14, and that 20 had decided to go through the vetting process by the 14th. They ranged from the North Carolina Division of Aviation to business pilots “who are tired of flying to Manassas and driving into Washington,” Fetter said.

He believes that the procedure remains too complicated, however, questioning why the fingerprinting and paperwork can’t be done at any federal office, rather than only at DCA and at a local FAA district office where each pilot’s credentials must be confirmed. There is a $31 fee for the privilege, as well.

Managers at all three airports say they’ve been writing to the FAA and TSA every three to four months, asking that flight restrictions at their fields be eased. All of them believe that the decision to tie the change to expiration of Special FAR 94 resulted from a study done more than a year ago by the security agencies, and from “more reasonable people helping us on a daily basis,” as one phrased it.

“We’re now dealing with people who understand (general aviation) and care,” Fetter stated.

Responsibility for ground security at the three airports has been transferred totally to the TSA, which issued the interim final rule.

The FAA will continue to be responsible for controlling air traffic into and out of the airports and for issuing special transponder codes for the flights.

The DC-3 airports claimed losses of about $8 million last year from missed fuel sales, aircraft rentals, tie-down fees, maintenance, and flight school revenue. Fetter says his business has fallen by 90% from its pre-Sept. 11 level. He expects some recovery, now, from people doing business with nearby Andrews Air Force Base, some recreational pilots, and people flying regularly to the area for family visits.

“We’re eight miles from D.C.,” he said. “With Reagan National still closed to GA, I think this will be a big deal eventually.”

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