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When the Secret Service Calls: How To Avoid Violating a TFR

It was a great day to practice some touch and goes since the winds were blowing and my friend, we will call him Jim, needed some crosswind practice. Jim and I fly out of Peter O. Knight Airport in Tampa Florida which is only a few miles from MacDill Air Force Base, home to some important military commands. We often see the military transport aircraft flying overhead, and occasionally with some very important people. These VIPs, especially the Joint Chiefs Of Staff will cause a Temporary Flight Restriction, TFR and today was one of those days where we had a TFR right over the airport.

Jim left work early to do some local flying from Peter O. Knight. Taxing to the runway Jim saw one plane depart and another plane call with their intentions of departing. After listening to the weather Jim switched back to the CTAF and announced his intentions of crossing a runway on his way out to depart.

This is when he heard someone calling his N number on the CTAF. He answered and it turned out to be the local FBO trying to contact him. The FBO asked if he knew about the TFR because of the Vice President’s visit? Jim said no, but then thanked him and taxied back to the hangar.

After putting the plane away, Jim drove to the terminal building to thank the manager for warning him about the TFR. Unfortunately, two planes had just taken off and the US Secret Service were looking for those two planes because they needed to talk to them. One of them always flies IFR but departs VFR and picks up his clearance in the air, but today this was not a good idea. Looks like two pilots had a very bad day.

I hope you never violate a TFR because it usually comes with a minimum ninety day suspension of your pilot certificate. Let me give you some tools that will help you in avoiding violating an TFR.

What is a TFR?

A Temporary Flight Restriction is a Flight Data Center (FDC) Notice To Airmen (NOTAM) which is issued for a variety of reasons including:

  • Protect persons and property in the air or on the surface from an existing or imminent hazard.
  • Provide a safe environment for the operation of disaster relief aircraft.
  • Prevent an unsafe congestion of sightseeing aircraft above an incident or event which may generate a high degree of public interest.
  • Protect the President, Vice President, or other public figures.
  • Provide a safe environment for space agency operations.
  • The majority of TFR’s require a pilot to be on an Instrument flight plan, therefore shutting down most VFR operations. This is one reason many look towards getting their instrument rating, especially if they operate in an area with many TFR’s. Although as you will see having an instrument rating does not always keep you out of trouble.

    How To Avoid Violating A TFR

    Since the terrorist attacks on the United States TFR’s are common and they can be implemented at the last minute. Some of you have decided to stop flying recreationally since it might jeopardize your professional pilot job. Some have decided to not fly at all recreationally when a TFR is implemented because most TFRs require you to be on an IFR clearance and you don’t want to get your instrument rating or you are not instrument current.

    Over the past decade there have been numerous violations involving VFR aircraft flying into TFRs so I understand pilots reticence in taking off when one is near. Rest assured there is a solution to the high number of TFR violations. First, know the TFR exists and second know the boundaries of the TFR.

    How To Find TFR Information

    TFR’s can easily be found but take some action on your part. In rare instances a TFR may suddenly appear and become affective while you are in flight. Some have invested in GPS displays which depict the current TFR’s and will normally catch these TFR’s that may occasionally pop up. But the most important thing to do is to become acquainted with all available information including TFR’s

    Before I fly I look up the TFR’s on the FAA’s website at www.tfr.faa.gov . This is a great start to your preflight because this website has listed most TFR’s, although a disclaimer exists at the bottom of the website warning that this website is only for planning purposes. You should always contact a briefer prior to your taking off on a VFR flight to determine if any TFR’s exist. To obtain the TFR’s along your route of flight check the FDC NOTAMS. Right before you leave it is always a good idea to receive an updated briefing to check if any TFR’s have suddenly popped up, especially if you operate near an area prone to VIP visits such as MacDill Air Force Base.

    Filing IFR doesn’t always keep us clear of TFR’s.

    Many flying Visually tend to stay on the ground when TFR restrictions are in place because we don’t want the added work of talking to air traffic control and getting a clearance. Those that fly for business will many times file and fly under Instrument Flight Rules, which most of us feel will keep us clear of all TFRs. But things don’t always go as planned and there are a few instances where you can still get into trouble.

    The majority of my professional flying is out of cities where I obtain my clearance for ground control or clearance delivery. For my personal flying I choose non towered airports primarily because after talking to ATC all week I like the freedom and peace and quite of a silent radio when departing a sleepy little airport. When I do fly cross country I almost always file IFR to keep me away from TFR’s and for the added safety of always being in contact with ATC.

    The two airports I do my pleasure flying from both have a remote communications outlet where I can pick up a clearance before departing. Most of the time when I call clearance and it is VFR they will ask If I can depart VFR and pick up the clearance in the air. So that is what I usually do. I take off and ask for my IFR clearance airborne.

    In the case above this would not have kept me clear of the TFR since the flight restriction included the airspace above the airport. In this case filing IFR would not have kept me clear of a TFR violation since I would have taken off into the airspace unknowingly had I not checked the NOTAMs.

    Many times while enroute on an IFR flight plan we become tempted to cancel in the air since the airport may be in sight many miles away and we don’t want additional vectoring from Air Traffic Control. Canceling in the air is many times more convenient than calling ATC or Flight Service on the ground. The only caveat is you must make sure you are not going to violate any TFR’s especially if you are very far away from the airport. To keep myself out of trouble I normally don’t cancel until I am on final or on the downwind and know I am well clear of any potential TFR’s


    Avoiding TFR’s is more difficult since the terrorist attacks on the United States. The best avoidance is to use all tools available and to talk to a briefer just prior to your departure. One of the best ways to avoid a TFR violation is to file and fly under instrument flight rules if you have the rating. Some pilots I speak with get their instrument rating for the primary purpose of being able to fly through TFR’s.

    There are many tools at your disposal in trying to avoid a call from the Secret Service for violating a TFR. Using the FAA website, filing IFR, and calling flight service before you depart are all ways to dramatically reduce the risk of violating a TFR. Always be vigilant and remember a short call to flight service to get information on TFR’s takes much less time than an enforcement hearing with the FAA.

    Safe Flying!

    For More Information:

    FAA TFR Website http://www.tfr.faa.gov


    Thanks to David Sorg for his question concerning how to avoid violating TFR's.

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