Whose Airspace Is It? When the media gets it wrong.

Submitted by Charlton Stanley, guest blogger
(Otteray Scribe)
ImageThis is my first post as a Guest Blogger. I am honored and humbled to be invited to post at one of the most respected legal opinion blogs on the ‘net. I will try to maintain the high standards already set by the heavy hitters already posting here. Thank you, Professor Turley, and all the other guest bloggers and regulars here. I have been posting here and on other blogs under the username Otteray Scribe. Otteray is the Cherokee name for the Blue Ridge Mountains where I live. When in the fourth grade, I learned about the scribes of old Europe. The idea of someone actually having a job writing things down for people who were illiterate fascinated me. My username combined two of my favorite words. Blue Ridge writer. That’s me.

Just a bit of background about me. I am a forensic psychologist with about 41 years of trying to get it right. I am passionate about my work, aviation, photography and my family. Other interests include law enforcement and corrections. In future stories, I plan to write about all those subjects. Hopefully, over the past four decades I learned a few things worth sharing.

For my first effort, I wanted to focus on how people who know little of aviation get a news story, and then mangle it into something that it is not. This is not new. There was a time not long ago when any kind of general aviation airplane crashed, it was described in the press as a, “Piper Cub.” Cubs are seldom seen these days, so that descriptor has evolved to a, “small Cessna.” Perhaps this story will set the record straight, and tamp down some of the ‘Hair-On-Fire’ hyperbole about flight restrictions over the oil spill in Arkansas. This environmental disaster is personal to me. At one time, I lived and worked only a few miles from Mayflower, and have flown in and out of the Conway airport many times.

Misinformation, hyperbole and conspiracy theories have been rampant about the flight restrictions around the oil spill at Mayflower, Arkansas. The problem started when local news media referred to Exxon-Mobil getting the FAA to establish a “no-fly” zone around the oil spill. To be clear, this is a completely different issue than what is happening on the ground. Links to some of those stories are at the end of this piece.

By way of background, Mayflower, Arkansas is a small town in the middle of the state, about halfway between Little Rock and Conway. It is just south of 6,700 acre Lake Conway. Some were claiming that local drinking water comes from the lake. It does not; this lake is not a reservoir for potable water. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission built Lake Conway as a dedicated fishing and wildlife area in 1948. On March 29, the Exxon Pegasus pipeline ruptured at Mayflower, spilling thousands of gallons of oil into the south end of the lake and parts of Mayflower. The oil poses a major risk to wildlife and fish in and around the lake, as well as local residents. Not surprisingly, this became a major news story locally, and as the news spread, so did outrage. As the outrage grew, conspiracy theories grew almost exponentially.

Exxon-Mobil said they would take responsibility for the cleanup. That is normal practice. The state of Arkansas does not have the equipment, expertise or funds budgeted to tackle a major oil spill cleanup. The “Pottery Barn Rule” applies: You broke it, you buy it. As the cleanup crews arrived, the supervisor on the scene asked the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) around the cleanup area. The situation in Mayflower warranted a TFR under the provisions of the law, so it was granted by the FAA.

That action fueled more conspiracy theory stories and blogs around the internet. How dare the FAA let Exxon-Mobil establish a “no-fly” zone over the spill so they could hide their misdeeds? Really? Part of the problem arose with the official FAA NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) shown below:


Bloggers and reporters jumped on the fact that an Exxon-Mobil supervisor, Tom Suhrhoff, was placed in charge of operations and flights in and out of the TFR. None of the outraged bloggers and media seem to have bothered to look up the applicable FAA regulation under 14 CFR § 91.137:

 (b) When a NOTAM has been issued under paragraph (a)(1) of this section, no person may operate an aircraft within the designated area unless that aircraft is participating in the hazard relief activities and is being operated under the direction of the official in charge of on scene emergency response activities.

The graphic is part of an aerial navigation map called a Sectional. The FAA has marked the TFR onto the Sectional, represented by the red circle with an R in the center. That means “Restricted.” The yellow mass at the lower right of the map is the congested area of Little Rock. Conway is to the upper left.

Contrary to what the blogosphere and some in the media seem to think, a TFR request is common practice. It does not mean that somehow Exxon-Mobil has taken control of the FAA. Some have protested that the airways are “public.” Yes, and so are highways, but both airspace and highways are regulated. A pilot cannot just climb in an airplane and go anywhere at any time, any more than one can drive on the wrong side of the road. The FAA controls airspace and makes rules for its use. When a private organization requests a TFR, a coordinator at that location is required. Since Exxon-Mobil is doing the cleanup, they must provide someone to direct traffic inside the TFR zone. In this case, that supervisor is Tom Suhrhoff. Permitted air traffic is mostly survey aircraft and helicopters. It is not the FAA’s job to set up a control tower at Mayflower, Arkansas

The company manager on the ground has the responsibility to inform the FAA when they are finished with flight operations in the TSA. However, in the event of a situation such as described in 14 CFR Section 91.137(a)(3), the FAA may (and probably will) keep the TFR in place so there are not two dozen airplanes trying to occupy the small airspace at the same time. Aerial rubberneckers are just as much a hazard as those who ogle motor vehicle wrecks and don’t pay attention to where they are going. Here is what 14 CFR Section 91.137(a)(3) says:

3. Prevent an unsafe congestion of sightseeing aircraft above an incident or event which may generate a high degree of public interest (14 CFR Section 91.137(a)(3)).

Once the FAA determines it safe to do so, the TFR will be revoked.

This brings us to the second part of this story: The alleged “no-fly” zone. It is not a “no-fly” zone. Under the authority of Title 14 CFR § 91.137(a)(1), here is the TFR instruction to pilots:

NOTAM Number : FDC 3/8699
Issue Date : April 01, 2013 at 1412 UTC
Location : MAYFLOWER, Arkansas near LITTLE ROCK VORTAC (LIT)
Beginning Date and Time : Effective Immediately
Ending Date and Time : Until further notice
Reason for NOTAM : Temporary flight restrictions
Type : Hazards
Replaced NOTAM(s) : N/A
Pilots May Contact : MEMPHIS (ZME) Center, 901-368-8234
Center: On the LITTLE ROCK VORTAC (LIT) 319 degree radial at 22.4 nautical miles.
(Latitude: 34º58’55″N, Longitude: 92º26’42″W)
Radius: 5 nautical miles
Altitude: From the surface up to and including 1000 feet AGL
Effective Date(s): From April 01, 2013 at 1412 UTC Until further notice
No pilots may operate an aircraft in the areas covered by this NOTAM (except as described).
ARTCC: ZME – Memphis Center
Title 14 CFR section 91.137(a)(1)

Under the heading “Airspace Definition,” the TFR is a ten nautical mile diameter circle (11.51 statute miles). Altitude restriction is from ground level up to and including 1,000 feet above ground level (AGL). The statement that no pilots may operate in the TFR “except as described,” refers to aircraft that have proper credentials and approval from the ground supervisor to enter the restricted airspace.

At the request of news media, the FAA is granting waivers for entering the TFR, provided they are credentialed, and coordinate their flights with the supervisor on the ground. That will keep congestion under control and maintain in-flight separation of aircraft, similar to that around any airport. Safety for everyone is paramount. No one wants to see a TV station aircraft have a mid-air collision with another media aircraft or helicopter full of cleanup workers.

Part of the clamor in the blogosphere has been the claim of keeping news media so far away they cannot see what is going on. No one but pilots appear to understand just how low a thousand feet is. A thousand foot clearance is just high enough to keep the helicopter operations zone clear of rubberneckers. If one wants to understand this so-called “no fly” zone’s 1,000-foot limit, go to your nearest general aviation airport and watch planes in the traffic pattern. The standard recommended pattern is 1,000 feet. A ground observer watching a plane go over at a thousand feet will swear they can count the rivets.

Any competent photographer knows that with a zoom lens, a view from even two thousand feet tells you all you need to know. Furthermore, images shot from a higher altitude give better wide shots, aiding understanding the extent of the spill. Images from too low an altitude do not give the bigger picture. If a worker has a bald spot on his head, that’s not newsworthy.

On a related note, I read several blog comments proposing sending camera-equipped radio control aircraft into the TFR to get surveillance pictures. This is a bad idea on many levels. A remote control model must not operate over 400’ altitude, stay line of sight with the operator, and not interfere with other aerial traffic. I plan a future story about scofflaws using radio control models illegally. They are jeopardizing a popular hobby.

Lest someone think I am giving Exxon-Mobil a pass, think again. The situation on the ground at Mayflower is ugly. The Faulkner County Sheriff’s Department and Exxon-Mobil Security have allegedly threatened reporters with arrest. Reporters doing interviews on private property, with permission, say they were threatened with arrest if they did not leave. Another report here. This is a developing story.

103 thoughts on “Whose Airspace Is It? When the media gets it wrong.

  1. BK,
    Tuckerman is about 100 miles northeast of Mayflower. They have been having problems for years. That appears to be sediment (aka, dirt) in the water, and this letter to the mayor might explain some of the problem. The letter was dated a year ago, and nothing appears to have been done. BTW, the water company is privately owned, rather than being a public utility.


  2. That water looks terrible, and glad to see we were able to quickly recognize it was for a different water quality problem, at a community a hundred miles away.

    The question still remains, though, for Mayflower: what impact will this dilbit spill have on key parts of the Mayflower environment?

    Technical papers by the oil industry show bitumen is typically blended at a 70-to-30 ratio with benzene, naptha and other diluents. The stuff is designed to flow, and it is understand if you keep it moving, it will stay mixed and flowing. The pictures at Mayflower show that the flowing diluent near the breach was a heavy, fluid oil, almost like a slurry seal.

    So, what happens when that artificially created mixture abruptly loses its velocity and constant mixing, and suddenly interacts with soil, or vegetation, or marsh, or water? Does it rapidly separate? Do the lighter volatiles quickly evaporate or soak into soil? How far do they go? When this mixture hits water, does it accelerate separation of diluent from bitumen, as would be expected given the varying chemical properties?

    And, of course, those silly booms. How in the hell do we expect a line of floating plastic bubbles to stop lighter diluents like benzene when we all know the booms would do nothing for any lightweight oils (think of how quickly olive oil spreads on the surface of water)? Or, for that matter, what stops the sinking bitumen from flowing UNDER the booms? As many have noted, these booms are just show.

    No doubt about it. The scariest thing about the Mayflower dilbit spill is that, after the initiate few days of stink-hell, and once we have all forgotten about the massive pressure-washing, it becomes very easy to not notice pipeline-related contaminants added to your environment. So, if I lived near this pipeline breach and had a well, I would definitely be testing for benzene and other contaminants, repeatedly in the next couple months. If I was on city water and had a home on Starlite Road, I would insist on a deep soil test, to ensure all benzene and other contaminants are gone.

  3. Arkansas Online has an excellent file with documents related to the spill. One of the documents is a Sampling & Analysis Plan, as updated on 4/4/13. It shows no benzene on 3/30 and 3/31, then benzene measured at both ends of the pipe under Hwy 89; i.e., benzene in the Cove (south of Hwy 89), and in the actual Lake Conway (north of Hwy 89).

    The two pages showing a map of sampling locations and benzene levels are uploaded here:

    Notice that it took three days for the benzene to migrate roughly a mile from the breached pipeline to the sampling locations, and another day for the benzene to substantially accumulate. The benzene levels present a health risk, as well as a fire risk (at higher concentrations).

    Not sure what the flammability is of benzene, but perhaps someone else can provide data: at what concentration do authorities shut down roadways and other potential spark sources? I saw one article mentioning I-40 was temporarily closed during the early spill, perhaps out of fear of ignition.

    Link to Arkansas Online’s cache of documents:

    • I used to be the chief operator on a benzene toluene unit for many years and got more than my fair share of it. So far so good I hope. It is extremely flamable and explosive. The way I got the job on the unit was two workers were burned to death on the unit, and I was their replacement. Benzene is slightly less flamable than gasoline and we used it to boost the octane rating and vapor pressure in gasoline. Gasoline is simply a mixture of a large variety of components that are mixed to give the desired characteristics such as vapor pressure, octane, etc..So it is very rare that any batch of gasoline is made up of exactly the same components from one batch to the next.

      Being mixed with much heavier oil will slow down the benzene considerably since it will take some time for it to seperate from the heavier components and the vapor pressure of the mix is very low and the benzene is very misseble in the oil. I have no idea of what the exact stochiometric ratio is for explosive or flamability, but it is close to gasoline in its pure form.

  4. Thanks for the insight, ARE… hands-on experience is always very valuable. My recollection of chemistry in high school and college is vague, but after a little poking around, I found a table with ‘flash points’ for various liquids. Here is a definition:
    ……………The flash point of a chemical is the lowest temperature where enough fluid can evaporate to form a combustible concentration of gas.
    The flash point is an indication of how easy a chemical may burn. Materials with higher flash points are less flammable or hazardous than chemicals with lower flash points………….

    Gasoline is one of the most flammable, listed at -45deg Fahrenheit. Benzene is 12degrees Fahrenheit. This bit of information (to me) suggests that authorities should have been (and likely were) extremely concerned about the potential for a benzene fire after this dilbit spill. The nature of dilbit, as a blend, would make it likely to rapidly separate if it interacts with a different environment. Thus, the dilbit flowing into the drainage and toward the Cove might remain fairly well blended while in motion, but once it crashes into an body of standing water, benzene and other volatiles will rapidly separate into a layer of gasses.

    Another parameter is LEL and UEL, meaning the ‘lower explosive limit’ and ‘upper explosive limit’ for the vaporized volatile. LEL/UEL for benzene are very similar to those for gasoline; explosions can be ignited at concentrations from 1.3% to 7.9% of the air volume. My guess is a rapidly separating dilbit will take little time to pass LEL and become ready to ignite.

    It is troubling that it appears both pipeline and government officials knowingly downplayed the danger. The handling of this (and other dilbit spills) is routinely presented as an oily inconvenience; nobody with knowledge will speak up candidly and responsibly (and certainly not timely) about the health and explosion hazards. This is wrong, though it seems par for the course. Two years ago, when Fukushima melted down, it seemed reasonable we should expect radiation contaminants to hit the U.S. West Coast. I noticed then, the talk about this hazard was very minimal and oblique. But, just this week, I see a study has been done linking the increase in an Iodine isotope created at Fukushima to a clear spike in thyroid conditions. After the early 2011 meltdown, the incidence of these thyroid conditions tripled here in the Pacific/western states, while in the far S.E. U.S., there was essentially no change.

    Here is a link to the flashpoint list:

    • I have to also state that I took a year of engineering organic chemistry too since I was trying at one time to get my Chem E degree. There really was little danger since benzene is miscible in the oil and takes some time to seperate out. To give a common example, if you leave a container of gasoline uncovered for months, you will find it no longer will work in most engines since the aromatics and lighter parafins have evaporated out. Thus the vapor pressure is not sufficient to sustain combustion or start. Now envision not a container of gasoline which is very volatile, but one that has tar in it which has been diluted with enough benzene and other lighter components that dilute it enough to cut its viscosity so it can be pumped. That will be a lot less volatile than the gasoline, have a much higher flash point.

      There are very handy meters that we used in the refinery called MSA meters which measure the hydrocarbon vapors concentration and which we used when vessels were to be entered and work done in any area where a spark was being used as in welding. In fact, those meters can and will detect vapors soon enough and with so little concentration that measures can be taken to avoid any danger. They are standard equipment in the oil patch, so I am sure that they had them on site. While I criticize the oil companies for their cutting corners in maintenance and operations, in such a situation, it would really be a PR disaster for the spill to blow up in a BIG ball of fire

      As for the longer term effects of exposure to benzene fumes, I have no idea, but I can state that I had 14 years exposure of a far more intense kind and I am still here. Lucky I guess so far. Many workers were not so lucky. In fact, on our unit, I tried to get the union safety dept to investigate the exposure effects since we had three of the wives of our workers on the unit have miscarriages in a short period of time. She explained to me the problems, and requisite tests, and basically told me that it was near impossible to prove damage on such a limited sample to get any correlation. The best you can say is that persons who have allergies will be more adversely affected than those who don’t. Fortunately, chemicals are not as bad or as hard to detect as radiation is. You cannot smell radiation.

      I also had some friends of mine who went to work on the Alyeska pipeline who came out of the refinery and our unit. I visited them in Alaska decades ago, and haven’t kept up with them. So I have no idea of their perceptions of how BP has run the operation as opposed to ARCO. Greg Palast is a great reporter on BP and its failings and from what I have read, he doesn’t make any technical errors that I can see..

  5. I have been following this in the Log Cabin Democrat, the daily paper out of Conway. There is some controversy over local law enforcement officers wearing their official uniforms while off duty and doing private security work. Wearing of department uniforms has to be with permission of the department. 19 officers are doing this.

    Others may differ, but this is just wrong. When they report to an Exxon supervisor and get a check from Exxon, then they need to be wearing Exxon security uniforms. Security officers do not have the power to arrest.

    Some argue they are “are always on duty.” That is a load of that famous barnyard product. If they got a job at a fast food restaurant, you can bet they would be wearing the company tunic with logo on the shirt. This is no different. If every department has a different policy, it becomes a crazy quilt of rules. The state legislature ought to step in, or better yet, a Federal law needs to be enacted. Those uniforms ought not to be for hire.

    Here is a link to the Log Cabin story.

    • OS you are quite right about this since they can issue company rules that are clearly unlawful and do it under color of law. In New Orleans they paid their cops so little that the only way to live was to work part time in bars as bouncers in uniform, and they also basically got bribes the same way. I was astounded at how little the cops were paid, and then they were surprised that most of the force was corrupt! Of course, the corruption was the fault of the individual cop, but the city I think had to bear some responsibility for setting them up for it.

  6. OS,
    The above story that you linked to is why a corporation should not be coordinating air space at any time. Especially air space above one of their ecological messes. Thanks for the link.

  7. Raff,
    I don’t have any problem with the local person on the ground in charge of air traffic being an employee of the agency running the air traffic. They will have access to private corporate radio frequencies and and can communicate with their own helicopters and survey aircraft on company frequencies separate from normal air traffic control frequencies. They will be monitoring one of the UNICOM frequencies as well. A UNICOM (Universal Communications) station is an air-ground communication facility operated by a non-air traffic control private agency to provide advisory service at uncontrolled airports, or in a TFR. UNICOM (most often 122.800 MHz) would be how the ground person talks to credentialed media aircraft. The sole responsibility of the company person on the ground during the time the TFR is in place is to keep air traffic separated.

    For example, at an airshow the TFR will be the responsibility of the airshow coordinator. Ross Sharp, who commented above (April 7, 2013 at 1:05 pm) was a professional airshow coordinator before he left the UK to become an American citizen. Ross knows more about this than I do. As Ross will be quick to tell you, the company guy on the ground knows how he wants helicopter and survey traffic to interact. There would be no point at all for him to have to tell an FAA guy what to do and simply have it relayed.

    During a Presidential visit, the Secret Service is in charge and basically tell the FAA what to do, and have the power to scramble interceptor fighters if necessary. There is one major exception to local coordinator(s) running air operations. That is at the Experimental Aircraft Association AirVenture fly-in and airshow held at Oshkosh, Wisconsin every year.

    The TFR at the annual EAA AirVenture airshow and fly-in at Oshkosh every July has one of the coolest TFRs in all of aviation. It is fifty miles radius around Wittman Field at Oshkosh, and goes to FL400 (flight level 40,000 feet). It may be the only one regularly staffed by FAA controllers. Not just any controllers, but the best ones on the FAA staff. The Oshkosh NOTAM usually runs about 35 pages, and they will send it out as a brochure for pilots requesting a printed copy. For one week, Wittman Field has the busiest control tower in the world. Last year, 10,000 airplanes flew into the field. FAA controllers compete to get to work AirVenture. It is the Super Bowl of air traffic control. In the case of the EAA AirVenture, it would literally be impossible for the EAA to run the tower.

  8. raff,
    Forgot to add: Managing and coordinating takeoffs and landings of aircraft with the cleanup crews, and advising news media aircraft of conflicting traffic is one thing. That is all the TFR is about. What the manager does with the ground operation is something else. As far as the FAA rules go, they only apply to airspace operations and safety. Security guards, road traffic/closings and cleanup crews are not affected by the TFR because they are outside the jurisdiction of the FAA.

    • Oshkosh is a neat event, but not the Super Bowl of ATC. In fact, many will assert the process devolves into a zoo, with almost no ATC at all. Here’s what I mean…

      …In Air Traffic Control, you have people using equipment and making quick decisions to manage flow. Much like a traffic cop gyrating and waving at a busy intersection under a broken traffic signal. In situations like Oshkosh, when the flood of air traffic becomes essentially uncontrollable, we impose rules that manage the flow, so as not to need to use people to perform the work. Thus, strict use of arrival routes and procedures is mandated, with the effect that the flood of GA arrivals self-spaces and self-sequences. The role of those controllers then reduces to mostly just watching for any situation where Aircraft A obviously does not say Aircraft B, and issuing radio calls to help prevent a collision. In regular ATC, the process involves separating aircraft by a minimum safe standard; at Oshkosh, that safe standard devolves to ‘just do not hit’.

      The process works overall, but not entirely. Look up the 7/27/10 midair at Ripon, WI in the NTSB database (link to full narrative: http://www.ntsb.gov/aviationquery/brief2.aspx?ev_id=20100730X91552&ntsbno=CEN10IA447A&akey=1).

      As for the issue of FAA giving ExxonMobil authority to control the flow over Mayflower, there is an important distinction between ‘control’ and ‘advisory’. This distinction also applies to smaller airshows. An ‘advisory’ simply adds eyes and a voice to the ground, to guide pilots with info that will help the flow and the safety; control involves issuing instructions, having authority to deny requests, etc. Control transfers considerable responsibility to the ‘controller’, thus makes that person (or agency) subject to legal action if anything bad happens. As such, FAA and others are averse to ‘controlling’ airspace without having lots of minimum infrastructure (such as posted airspace regulations, an actual control tower, radar equipment, radio equipment, etc.)

      An appropriate regulation to properly manage a situation like Mayflower would be to have FAA create a TFR (temporary flight restriction), coupled with an on-site observer following set advisory guidelines … and make the pipeline company foot the bill. The TFR would declare no pilot access to the TFR airspace without first establishing communications with the on-site advisory service. The frequency being used by the on-site advisory service would be specified in the TFR. But, the key thing is, the on-site advisory service would be fully removed from the pipeline company. They would not be influenced by a desire to hide information from the media. They would follow set procedures, watching from the ground, issuing traffic calls, and suggesting staying away if/when congestion is occurring. Their equipment would likely be nothing more than a stronger portable transceiver, a laptop or paper pad to track calls, a digital recording system to document the traffic communications, and a dedicated cellphone for quick contact to the designated FAA authority (such as Memphis Center, in the Mayflower case). They would NOT need a portable tower; just a vehicle and an ability to immediately step outside and scan the horizon. Logically, in a situation such as at the Mayflower spill, they would be co-located with other Federal, state, and local response officials, to coordinate activities.

      And, as noted, FAA’s regs would require ExxonMobil to foot the bill. Logic is that their pipeline accident spurred a dangerous air traffic situation, creating the need for a temporary, manned advisory service. Frankly, such a service should cost no more than $500-$1,000 per day, for all costs (pay, lodging, per diem, gas/equipment, etc.).

      As for those cops earning bonus pay from ExxonMobil, especially those in uniform… disgusting. That, coupled with the $15K to the PTO shows just how easily money corrupts. This is Arkansas, I guess; not the beautiful land and warm people I remember, but a new land of corruption, at least in pockets. It kind of reminds me of those thirty pieces of silver from bible history; imagine how confused Christians (in Arkansas and elsewhere) would be if a corporation had stepped in, made a donation to the apostles, and bought their silence after Jesus was crucified.

  9. OS, The EAA show is Oshkosh is amazing. My friend flew us in, once in his twin Comanche and once in his Aerostar. Great show! An aircraft for everyone’s taste.

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