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. ARE,
    That is serious wave activity country. The Mt. Shasta wave is infamous.

    The now defunct Black Forest Gliderport at Colorado Springs had a runway five thousand feet long and twenty feet wide. The south end was 200 feet lower than the north end. The field had five wind socks. I landed there once with every one of those wind socks pointing in a different direction. I did not even try to hit the runway. Landed on the grass and sat there with the spoilers and dive brakes deployed, stick full forward, wheel brake locked, waiting for the ground crew in the Jeep to come get me. Those were ‘interesting times.’

    1. OS The Dunsmuir airport is only 2300′ long for landing at 3200′ elev., but it compensated for that short length because there was a huge upslope. The 32 runway is closed for takeoffs because of Shasta, and landing on 14 is impossible for the same reason, plus the downslope. It was a real hard time getting into 32 because you had to descend into the I-5 valley and make a sharp left turn before you hit another mountain from the downwind. Of course the winds were always a killer in all seasons. I had to go in there during the winter a lot since many of the airports in Northern CA were closed because of the Tule fog, and they only plowed the narrow runway wide enough for the Chieftan wingspan and you had to watch your wingtips so you didn’t catch the high snowbanks on either side.

      I used the mountain wave to get a C-172 up to 15,000 with some Japanese tourists who wanted to fly over Mt.Shasta. Bet you didn’t know a C-172 was that capable did you?

  2. Bud:
    This is the Spruce Pine airport, late afternoon in the fall. There used to be trees on both sides of the runway at the far end. Since it you take off downhill, and land going uphill, it was necessary to thread the needle going between those trees. Glad they are gone. They also lengthened the runway since I was checked out there, which helps a lot. Notice the pilot turns slightly to the right on climb-out. You cannot turn on climb-out. You can barely see it, but as the plane heads out down the valley, the only emergency landing spot in case of engine failure is a triangle shaped parking lot. Typical of mountain flying is the bumpiness even late in the evening when the air should be glassy. I love this place.

    1. OS Wish that I had a video cam when I flew into and out of Dunsmuir-Mott in CA on the side of Mt. Shasta,but I was too busy staying alive. I did that in a Chieftain most of the time, and I insisted that all my aircraft have the heavy duty brakes and a functioning heater. It was beautiful country, but the guy before me on that run parked his Chieftain on the side of Mt Shasta at about 13,000′ They had to rappel down to get the body and the work out of the plane since it is on such a steep slope.

  3. We put FartinDog in the rear of the station wagon when we go down the roads in North Carolina where it is fair game to tailgate. I lower the back window when they follow too close and he lets out a big one. We open all the front windows and in a short while the tailgater veers off the road in a tizzy. Then Josh gives FartinDog a dog biscuit and we roll the windows back up. When in Florida FartinDog has to give out two in a row because many of them are old geezers and it takes a bit more.

  4. If they were smart and wanted to zone off some air space, they would hire about twenty five dogs like FartinDog and space them around the designated area. On a good day, FartinDog is good for about a quarter of a mile. None dare call it treason.

  5. OS:

    It would seem to me someone owes some people some money. I am all for using natural resources to make man’s life better but you have to regard your neighbors property.

    people should really pay attention when buying or selling land. the people out west dont convey mineral rights when they sell. They can set a rig a mile away and drill right under your house 10,000′ down slick as you please.

    Which brings up the question of how far down do mineral rights go?

  6. Thanks OS, I was aware they wanted to check you out first.
    I saw a vid of a MU-2 going into 2NCO. Looks incredible.

    Now about the underwear…. People still wear them????
    Who da thunk?? LOL

  7. Bud,
    Not Burnsville, but got checked out at Spruce Pine (7A8). They don’t recommend you fly in there unless you are checked out in mountain flying and the field itself. Scroll down near the bottom of the page and read the “Additional Remarks.” Other than those few things, the Spruce Pine airport is a piece of cake.


    The FBO does not sell clean underwear.

  8. Bron,
    I don’t know how the coal companies acquire them, but an interesting question. There have to be politics and big money. I am aware that some are because big companies bought up mineral rights, and the original owners never dreamed they would scrape off the mountains to get at the minerals. They are dumping the waste into valleys and rivers, which they don’t own. My view is that everyone owns the mountains. It is not just who buys a patch of land. If we do not take care of the land, it will bite back one day.

  9. OS,
    There have been many environmental disasters for sure. Chernobyl Fukushima, and the Valdez are certainly among the very worst.. But, I believe
    they were all accidental or very bad planning… Whereas as you point out, the destruction of the mountains are very deliberate as are the tar sands.

    Again, I can’t vouch for the validity of that site.

    Slightly OT OS, have you ever been into Burnsville NC (2NCO),
    (or is that nowhere near you?) Looks like one of the most spectacular
    and beautiful mountains in the east.

  10. Bron,
    Somebody is going to pay. You can bet the fat cats will figure some way to avoid pay and bonus cuts. The cost will be passed on to us one way or another. Those most responsible won’t feel a thing except to have to answer more phone calls than usual. The extra time and trouble may even be worth a few more millions in bonuses.

    We could have an argument on which environmental disaster was the worst. There was Chernobyl of course. But look what they are doing to the mountains. The first time I ever rounded a curve on a mountain road and saw a mountain with the top ripped off, I almost threw up in my hat–and I mean that literally. I was sick to my stomach.

  11. reformfaanow,
    Thanks for your input on putting an industry in charge of the access to an oil spill. .

    1. Happy to contribute, Raff, and hope it helps somehow.

      To me, the biggest ‘disaster’ here is the attack on the foundation of democratic process. After my years of experience, I have no doubt that today (likely more so than say ten or thirty years ago) there are plenty of ‘burned out’ people who care little enough, and they now just look out for number one. But, we still have many who do care, who need to learn the facts and SPEAK UP (not be intimidated into silence anymore) so that a decision may be made. If we decide in a fair and full democratic process to take action that destroys our environment, so be it; it least the bad decision did not happen due to deception and manipulation. But, absolutely, we cannot allow corporations or bureaucracies or even just a rogue local person to run roughshod over others, obstructing their access to factual data, and denying their right to participate.

      When I look at the NTSB report at Kalamazoo-Enbridge and relate it to what just happened at Mayflower, I feel bad … mostly for my children.

  12. Bron,
    That would all be nice if these environmental catastrophes weren’t man made. The Exxon Valdez disaster is still negatively impacting the environment and the oil eating bacteria are not solving the problem.

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