6 min read

About 10 years ago, my wife and I were planning to stretch the legs of our recently purchased RV-10 with a 1500 mile cross country trip from our home in snowbound, frozen Canada to warm southern Texas.  When I told a local spray pilot about our plans his words were, “watch for the TFRs”.

“Yes, I know” was my reply, as I had already noted the TFR (Temporary Flight Restriction) for former President Bush’s Texas ranch. “No, no! WATCH OUT FOR THE TFRs” he emphasized, and then he shared with he his experience which I’ve described below.


The Memorial Day weekend of 2013 is forever burned into my memory. It started Friday with 1,400 miles, two flights and a taxi bringing me to a rural Pennsylvania airport late in the evening.  Too tired to be picky, I just collapsed onto the old couch in the clubhouse and pulled my flight jacket up to my chin, hoping for some shuteye before dawn’s arrival.  The glare of the rising sun through the cracked window penetrated my bloodshot eyelids a few hours later.  A dusty old pickup rolled up, and what appeared to be the Marlboro man himself crossed the threshold to pour me a cup of strong black coffee from the vintage pot on the counter, and said “plane’s ready to go.”  Obviously a man of few words.

Dromander

The Dromader PZL-Mielec M-18.

I had come here to ferry a Dromader (PZL-Mielec M-18) back to a Canadian farmer/custom applicator to expand his operation.  After doing the walk-around, I pulled the 10’10” diameter propeller through a number of rotations to clear any hydraulic locks before climbing into the cockpit, placing my Garmin 496 on the glare shield, and prepared for a long day ahead hand-flying following the magenta line at 100 knots.  Starting the 1,823 cubic inch supercharged radial consisted of getting the inertia starter up to speed and then engaging the starter.  A cacophony of explosions and smoke settled down into the steady roar appropriate for a 1,000 HP rating.  Without it’s usual load of 660 gallons or 4,850 lbs. in the hopper, I expected a bumpy ride later in the afternoon so I was eager to get an early start.  Forty-five minutes later, I was in level cruise, the air was smooth, and traffic was non-existent, so I made myself as comfortable as was possible in a machine not designed with either cross country travel or creature comforts as priorities.

Suddenly, my peripheral vision picked up something to my left and the serenity of the morning was shattered.  A Black Hawk helicopter was a few feet off my wing!  As I stared at it in disbelief, the door slid open and a soldier in fatigues held up a large 121.5 sign.  My shaking fingers stabbed at the radio ’emerg’ button and I managed a feeble “hello?”

Black Hawk

A Black Hawk helicopter was a few feet off my wing after penetrating the TFR.

“You have penetrated the Camp David TFR” was the authoritative response.  “Turn right heading 350 and land at the airport four miles north.”

Describing me as rattled would be a gross understatement.  To this day, I’m convinced that had I been flying a retractable, I would have landed gear up.  The helicopter stayed on my wing until the wheels were rolling, and then radioed, “proceed to the apron”.  As I was marshalled to a spot surrounded by black Suburbans and armed soldiers, the Black Hawk landed a short distance away.

TFR

The Camp David Prohibited Area expands when the President is on site.

The nightmare deepened as the propeller stopped turning.  I was ordered out of the aircraft, and they proceeded to dissect me and the aircraft.  Suffice to say, that although they were courteous and professional, the search of both was both extensive and intensive.  When I insisted that my Garmin had showed me just north of the TFR, I was informed that the TFR “bloomed” out when the President was there and my track had entered that area.  When I offered that I was just a Canadian minding my own business and unaware of the president’s movements as justification for my error, the reply was that ignorance was no excuse.  The tangled international trail of a Polish aircraft having a cancelled United States registration because it was being flown under a temporary permit to its new French Canadian owner was questioned repeatedly from numerous angles by many men in identical black suits.  When they told me to account for every text on my phone in the last 30 days, I had mental lapses on a couple of them, and they were definitely not happy with that.

The crowning moment occurred when the farmer who had purchased the airplane hung up on the agent calling.  That DID NOT help!  From his perspective, a weekend call from a person identifying as, “Agent Johnson from the Secret Service,” while busy trying to seed his crop seemed like a practical joke.  When he got a second time-wasting call a minute later from a number he didn’t recognize, the logical response was a brusque, “quit bothering me,” before hanging up again.  Visions of being stuck in this purgatory indefinitely elevated my abject misery and elevated stress to another level entirely!  It took three calls from the Secret Service agent before he actually took the call and confirmed my narrative.

That marked a turning point, and over time, the number of guns, soldiers, agents, and Suburbans eased downward.  A number of hours later, I was allowed to resume my journey.  The long delay resulted in no possibility of completing the ferry trip in one day, so that was inconvenient.  However, the real hassle commenced after my return with a call from a Transport Canada Compliance and Enforcement Officer. “What did you do?  They are really mad!  They want your license suspended and a $10,000 fine.”

My livelihood as a spray plane pilot for the upcoming season was on the line.  In addition, the new owner of the airplane was being hit with potential suspension of his Commercial certificate and a fine as well.  This was serious!  Eventually, a settlement was reached where both of us paid fines, but were able to keep our licenses and certificates.  It was expensive, stressful, and very unpleasant.

So…watch out for the TFRs!”


 The pilot that told me this story is gone now, but his advice lives on.  I’ve made at least a dozen trips to southern states in the last 10 years and being aware of TFRs has been at the top of my planning every time.  It’s certainly true that bad decisions make good stories, but I’ve also been told to learn from the mistakes of others as I will never live long enough to do them all myself.  And every time I see a TFR on the map, I remember my friend with a smile :)

Curtis Penner
3 replies
  1. Kerry Thomas Steele
    Kerry Thomas Steele says:

    Great story.
    I had a similar encounter with a Black Hawk along the gulf coast near Flora-Bama.
    I was flying my RV-4 along the coast at +- 200′ looking at all the hurricane damage a few days after Ivan passed thru when off my left side came the Calvary. The Black Hawk came along side of me and opened the side door where a machine gunner looked at me and with a full arm ORANGE glove pointed offshore and basically told me (without words) go away. I saluted them and turned around as they escorted me for a few miles and then they turned away. Once I got back to KNEW I called the tower and asked them if there were any flight restrictions on the coast and they said that there were NONE. As it turned out i found out that the President was making an unannounced visit to the coast and I just happened to be in the right place at the wrong time. I was never contacted by the FAA or the Secret Service over this event and am very happy I wasn’t.

    Regards,
    Kerry

    Reply
  2. larry smith
    larry smith says:

    Good story, but this kind of abusive treatment of citizens is going overboard. The crime does NOT deserve the punishment. There was certainly no malicious intent or gross error, just a simple misunderstanding of the law, and the fact that TRFs can happen with NO notice or warning, totally unfair.

    While I don’t minimize national security, but pilots need reasonable expectations and certainly have a right to use our national airspace system. It’s time we gave the airspace back to the people that deserve it, the US citizens, and we should extend reasonable expectations to our northerly neighbors.

    This has gotten worse and worse over the years, discourages a lot of pilots that simply want to fly VFR across the country. We’ve see plenty of abuse by law enforcement over time, and certainly don’t need it from the military.

    I know I’ll get some flack on this but just remember why this country was founded.

    Reply

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