Presidential TFRs are complicated.
These flight restrictions are temporary and, often, the boundaries keep moving. Furthermore, they can occur without warning anytime a president decides to travel. They are kind of like pop-up summer thunderstorms.
They’re avoidable, but a pilot sometimes has to use every available resource to avoid them.
A search of NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) found that 54 pilots and controllers submitted NASA reports related to Presidential TFR encounters.
A Cessna 414 pilot filed a report after he failed to see Presidential TFR boundary markings on his Foreflight Mobile app.
He was on a VFR flight to Santa Monica Airport (KSMO). About 50 miles from the airport, and in a descent, he tuned in the ATIS and contacted SOCAL Approach for a flight following request. ATC answered with a request to ident but made no further contact for several minutes.
“The controller finally got back to me,” wrote the pilot. “Asked me if I knew about the TFR, and I replied ‘no,’ so he vectored me to 240 (heading).”
He immediately complied. A few minutes later an F-15 fighter jet showed up off his wing. In his report the pilot blamed the incursion on two things: ATC and an opacity setting in the Foreflight app.
After the incident, the pilot realized the opacity setting on the mobile device he was using had been put on the lowest setting by a previous pilot, rendering the red outline Foreflight uses to delineate Presidential TFRs virtually invisible.
His takeaway from the incident was not that he should make a habit of pre-flighting his mobile device. His takeaway was that Foreflight should update its software to return opacity settings to a “default” setting when the app is closed.
“Most GA pilots have started using Foreflight. It is used by a wide range of corporate and government customers, state and federal agencies. It is one of the highest rated, widely used aviation packages,” he wrote.
Therefore, in his estimation, it is incumbent upon Foreflight to force each pilot to re-adjust the multiple opacity settings, to keep pilots safe.
As for ATC, the pilot concluded that the incursion could have been avoided because “Approach control could have vectored us away from the TFR as soon as I had hit the first ident.”
A transplanted Florida GA pilot filed a NASA Report after an accidental violation near his new South Carolina home base of Summerville Airport (KDYB).
“I flew my hour-long flight outside Charleston’s airspace, only to find upon landing that I had violated a Presidential TFR,” he wrote.
He stated he had checked for NOTAMs at the four airports along his route of flight. None of the four mentioned a TFR.
On the one hand, he admitted that he should have called Flight Service before departing.
On the other hand, he blamed the unmanned FBO at his departure airport for having its weather computer turned off, making him unable to check that.
He blamed the state of South Carolina for not publicly disclosing to newcomers the existence of the small, unpopulated island around which the Presidential TFR was issued.
Also, he decided Charleston Air Force Base/International Airport (KCHS) “could really benefit from some more open disclosure of its unique airspace issues.”
Last of all, he blamed his violation on the fact that his local GA community was small and “tough to get to know.”
He and the Cessna 414 driver both seem to believe that their infractions were not their fault. They weren’t alone.
Plenty of Presidential TFR NASAs were written with that same attitude. There’s a distinctive Spanish phrase that describes that attitude: “Eche la culpa.” Literally, it means to throw the blame on somebody else.
A person who tends to eche la culpa is someone who sees himself as a victim. In aviation terms, victim mentality is similar to having a resignation attitude. That’s one of aviation’s Notorious Five Hazardous Attitudes.
And a pilot who displays the resignation attitude is a dangerous pilot even before stepping into the cockpit.
The antidote for resignation attitude inflight is to remember CFR 91.3: The PIC is the final authority for aircraft operation.
A large percentage of Presidential TFR violation NASA reports revealed another dangerous pilot tendency: Complacency bred from familiarity.
One Cessna 210 pilot launched from his home base to practice maneuvers in that airport’s practice area. He performed stalls, lazy eights, and chandelles, as well as slow flight. He ended the session with a flight to the nearby VOR to practice holds.
“This was a local flight. I did not check the NOTAMs,” he admitted.
So it was a huge surprise to him when a fighter jet intercepted him en route to the VOR. Per the fighter pilot’s instructions, and under escort, the Cessna pilot returned to his home airfield and landed. After final radio contact with the fighter jet, he hangared his plane and attempted to drive home.
“Driving away from the hangar on the ramp area, noticed two cop vehicles behind me and two in front; hence stopped,” he wrote. “They informed me I busted a Presidential TFR.”
They held him until Secret Service arrived 90 minutes later. A one-hour interview followed.
“Check NOTAMs even for local flights to practice area!” emphasized the pilot in his conclusion.
Another pilot filed a NASA after inadvertently violating a Presidential TFR over Orlando International Airport (KMCO).
He wrote that, prior to his flight, “I did not call flight services to check for TFRs because I am on auto-distribution for TFRs via my email address.”
He launched and overflew KMCO Class B airspace for a total of 46 minutes VFR, at 10,500′. He chose not to file a VFR flight plan or use flight following services due to his familiarity with the route.
When he landed at Sebring Regional Airport (KSEF), the airport manager informed him of the Presidential TFR in place and that he had violated that TFR.
“Mortified, I spoke with an FAA representative and provided all requested information.”
He also explained that the normal email TFR notification system had failed him, as he’d received none. He further wondered why he hadn’t been notified or intercepted while airborne.
The response was that the pilot’s slow, steady, straight and level flight path over the Class B airspace made two things clear to ATC: That he did not represent a threat and that he probably was unaware of the Presidential TFR. But they didn’t warn him, either.
The pilot investigated further. He and a fellow pilot searched unsuccessfully for the TFR online. Neither ever found that specific TFR.
Despite lack of written evidence of that TFR, the pilot concluded in his report, “I am sickened that I made such an avoidable mistake, and it has been an absolute wake-up call for me.”
This pilot failed himself by forgetting to heed CFR 91.103: Each pilot shall become familiar with all available information concerning that flight.
Not Just Pilots
It isn’t just pilots who get complacent and get caught. Controllers file Presidential TFR violation NASA Reports, too.
A Potomac Approach controller and a Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (KDCA) Tower controller filed NASAs after multiple Presidential TFR infractions occurred on the same day.
“DCA Tower called with a three minute to liftoff call off KADW (Joint Base Andrews), which is seven miles southeast of KDCA,” wrote the Potomac Approach controller.
KADW is the home base for Air Force One. Approach put 15 KDCA arrivals into holds, anticipating Air Force One’s departure and transition through their airspace.
However, KDCA Tower continued to clear aircraft for takeoff. At one point two airliners departing Reagan National were separated less than a mile from Air Force One, and converging.
In his report, the Potomac Approach controller asked, “How is it we on Approach are not allowed to run arrivals, yet they have authority to release airplanes right at presidential aircraft?”
The KDCA controller countered that he had maintained basic separation and that he had had eyes on Air Force One the whole time.
The Potomac Approach controller worried that — regardless — such actions were too risky. He concluded that a Working Group is needed to better coordinate VIP movement among Potomac Approach, KDCA Tower and KADW Tower.
Learn the Locales
The C-210 pilot did not bother to check NOTAMs because he was only flying out to the neighborhood aerial practice area. The Florida pilot thought his email setup and his familiarity with the route of flight were good enough. And KDCA Tower controllers believed that the airline traffic they controlled posed no danger to the president.
We know that each U.S. president communicates early on in his administration where he likes to travel domestically. Let’s learn about those locales. Let’s stay abreast of the president’s travel plans.
Let’s remember that NOTAMs aren’t always printed and distributed in a timely manner.
And, let’s not rely solely on digital communication. Let’s pick up the mic or actually use a phone to talk to ATC. They do have the TFRs.
Just remember, there is no complacency provision in 91.103, and there is no eche la culpa in 91.3.