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. OS at 5:40, One of the links in your article stated that the clean-up workers in Arkansas were observed doing their job without protective gear while residents were complaining that the fumes were making them sick.

    During the Gulf spill when BP was running the show and no observers or news people were allowed into the affected area someone got in and took photos of the clean-up crews working without any safety equipment. This became a big deal because of the corexit which breaks down organic matter. Most of the clean-up workers were locals. Thereafter there were large numbers of workers that became very ill. Now with this bitumen there is a cocktail of chemicals used that are not even disclosed and the same disregard for safety among the workers.

    It’s this kind of thing and washing the bitumen in the streets into the storm sewers- which empty into the wetland- that are the cause of the news blackouts. It’s about willfully breaking the law and cutting corners on worker health (and expense) and it’s done in collusion with local and federal government. No one wants America to know the cost of our dirty energy addiction.

  2. bettykath: “Just saw this from 2007. Sometimes the msm just doesn’t even bother reporting it.” “CIA-Torture-Jet-wrecks-with-4-Tons-of-COCAINE”

    WoW!. just ‘wow’. Great catch. I specially liked the following paragraph from the article:

    “The Gulfstream Jet was initially reported by the Mexican Press as carrying a huge cargo of more than 6 Tons of Cocaine as well as one ton of pure Heroin but a later press release courtesy of the Mexican Military had it dwindled down to only 4 tons of Cocaine with no Heroin whatsoever. By early October the Mexican press announced a 3rd reduction leaving only 3.7 Tons of cocaine followed a few days with 3.6 then later by a 5th and final report from the Mexican Authorities that gave the amount as just 3.3 tons of Cocaine. Draw your own conlusions about the missing 3 ton’s of cocaine and the ton of heroin that was first reported. ”


    (Articles I have read stated that the ONI took up the slack for the Corsican’s and did the drug running themselves while the Corsican’s reclaimed control of the Marseilles docks from the striking workers.)


  3. Three years later in the gulf……


    The oil that spewed into the Gulf of Mexico during the Deepwater Horizon disaster three years ago killed off millions of amoeba-like creatures that form the basis of the gulf’s aquatic food chain, according to scientists at the University of South Florida.

    The die-off of tiny foraminifera stretched through the mile-deep DeSoto Canyon and beyond, following the path of an underwater plume of oil that snaked out from the wellhead, said David Hollander, a chemical oceanographer with USF.

    “Everywhere the plume went, the die-off went,” Hollander said.

    The discovery by USF scientists marks yet another sign that damage from the disaster is still being revealed as its third anniversary looms. Although initially some pundits said the spill wasn’t as bad as everyone feared, further scientific research has found that corals in the gulf died. Anglers hauled in fish with tattered fins and strange lesions. And dolphins continue dying.

    The full implications of the die-off are yet to be seen. The foraminifera are consumed by clams and other creatures, who then provide food for the next step in the food chain, including the types of fish found with lesions. Because of the size of the spill, the way it was handled and the lack of baseline science in the gulf, there’s little previous research to predict long-term effects.

  4. OS:

    just grab em by the tail and swing em around to get the oil off. once done you just let go for a long distance re-patriation.

  5. University of Central Arkansas experts have begun working on saving as much wildlife as possible. Birds are relatively easy and a lot has been learned about cleaning birds from previous oil spills. However, trying to clean up Cottonmouth Moccasins and Rattlesnakes is a much trickier problem. Saving snakes is important because they are an essential part of the ecosystem. They keep small rodents and other pests under control.


  6. From today’s issue of the Log Cabin Democrat, the Conway, AR newspaper. The airborne toxins have begun to lessen. They are volatile, by definition, so that is expected. What is left is tarry goop, and going to be a major problem to clean up.


    Also, the Feds have ordered the pipeline not be restarted until they are satisfied the repairs.


  7. Thanks ARE,

    Never spending much time near the cumulo-granite, I would be
    pushing my personal envelope with that type of flying. The scenery
    must be heavenly though, as evidenced in some DVD’s and videos.
    Aren’t they incredible inventions for pilots?

  8. Thank You for the lesson Mr Scribe great first blog i look forward to reading your blogs. im sure i will enjoy and learn from them as i have all the other guest bloggers and commenters on the forum

  9. I gathered that OS.
    I was referring to Randyjet taking tourists up to FL 150 in
    a Cessna 172.
    Most 172’s are not thrilled about climbing with 4 SOB’s. he he

    Post at: randyjet 1, April 7, 2013 at 10:55 pm
    I should have copied and highlighted that quote
    up thread.

  10. Bud,
    Randy used the energy of a mountain wave so it would not have taken him long. First time I popped off tow in the Pike’s Peak wave, the variometer (similar to vertical speed indicator) needle hovered between 3,000 and 4,000 fpm. That was with no engine. Totally silent, but feel as if a giant hand has grabbed you and flung you straight up. Fuel burn? Zero.

  11. Randyjet,

    Fuel burn at 15000 (C-172) must be great, but how long did it take
    to get there, 10 hours??? LOL

    1. Bud, Since it was summer it did not take long at all. The thermals were incredible over Siskyou county airport, then the ridge lift to the east boomed me up to 15,000 on the way to Mt. Shasta. It only took as long as it took to fly to Shasta. The tourists loved it. If I had a Super Cub with skis, I think I could have landed on the ice in the ridge between the peaks or on the top. Of course, in order to get back off, I would have had to leave the pax on top. LOL!

  12. randyjet,
    This is the kind of place Bob Symons would work out of. “Yee-Haw,” indeed.

  13. randyjet,

    As a matter of fact I did. Robert Symons was an early explorer of mountain waves. He initially explored waves in his Cessna 140. Later he took his Super Cub as high as 40,000 feet while doing snow survey work. At that altitude, you need positive pressure oxygen. Here are some photos of the Super Cub, as well as some of the black and white photos Bob took.


    1. OS Thanks that is outstanding and I’m sorry I didn’t know of him. When I was stationed at Yreka for Ameriflight, I did some flight instructing, glider towing, and got my glider rating there. I loved the place and if they had paid better and given me a plane that would burn Jet A, I would probably still be there. During the summer, we had all kinds of sailplanes that could get up over 18,000, so we got a box that we could open with SEA Center when they needed to get high. It is a gorgeous area.

      I remember once we were at Weiser air park and a guy in a Super Cub bought some fuel, he was solo, taxied onto the runway, and took off in about 40′. All of us watching had the same reaction. Why did he even bother with the runway? He could have taken off right from the fuel area with no problem. It is a great airplane.

  14. Thank you Bob. As I said at the top, I have a few things I am passionate about. I will try to share the good stuff.

  15. Great, fun-fact-filled article, OS!
    Write us a few more of your lines.

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