When motorists speed, or run a stop sign, they get a ticket. But what about those pilots that cross into no-fly zones when President Donald Trump is at Mar-a-Lago?
There are consequences, authorities say.
When the president visits his “Winter White House,” all air operations, with a few exceptions, are prohibited within the 10-mile inner circle ring centered on Palm Beach International Airport. Certain operations are allowed in the outer ring extending 30 miles from the airport. In all, 73 aviators have slipped into the restricted air space during Trump’s various stays as president, the Federal Aviation Administration says.
Eight did so this past weekend alone. In three of those cases, the military sent fighter jets to intercept them after they didn’t respond to radio calls from air controllers.
Many of the 73 violators just crossed the line into the 30-mile wide ring — there’s no big yellow line in the air — and, when alerted by air traffic controllers, promptly slid back out. In those cases, it was no harm, no foul.
But some go a little farther into the zone. And some might be repeat offenders.
And then there are those who don’t watch the news and don’t know the president’s in town. Who don’t check for a NOTAM — “notice to airmen” — that the FAA issues every time there’s a presidential flight restriction. And who, inexplicably, fly around with their radios off, or on side frequencies. Some of those incidents end up scrambling fighter jets, who quickly get the pilot’s attention.
The FAA said in a statement that it investigates all violations “and takes appropriate enforcement action depending on the specific circumstances.”
While the agency won’t specify, government officials have said sanctions can range from warning letters to fines to suspending or revoking a pilot’s “airman certificate.”
The military has said putting a fighter jet in the air to meet up with a pilot who probably isn’t, but could possibly be a threat to the president, isn’t fun. And it’s not cheap. The U.S. AirForce said this past year that taxpayers pay about $35,000 for an AirForce F-15, a similar plane but a bit heavier and more expensive, to be in the air for an hour. That figure includes fuel as well as maintenance before and after the planes fly.
But Major Mary Ricks, spokeswoman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command, said Wednesday that usually there’s no direct cost to taxpayers.
She said air bases rotate the assignments — last weekend’s patrols were done by two South Carolina bases — and consider them formal missions and work them into their annual budgets. Often, Ricks said, planes already are in the skies or parked very nearby so the cost is minimal. On top of that, pilots are getting their flight hours in. As a result, she said, NORAD does not hit the pilots for reimbursement.
Ricks said NORAD leaves any enforcement to the FAA.
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the nation’s largest association of private pilots and owners, with about 400,0o0 members, recommends pilots keep their radios on and tuned to the “guard” frequency, a counterpart to the old Channel 9 on CB radios that’s designated for emergencies, said Melissa Rudinger, AOPA’s vice president of government affairs.
And any pilot who submits a flight plan is alerted about the restricted areas, Rudinger said from Washington, D.C.
But, she said, any pilot who’s flying “visual flight rules” — basically looking out the window as opposed to relying on instruments — isn’t required to have the radio on, and even though the FAA issues NOTAMs every time it activates a “temporary flight restriction,” a pilot who hasn’t done his or her homework and doesn’t know there’s a TFR simply doesn’t know he or she has violated it.
“They’re going to be clueless,” Rudinger said.
But, she said, ultimately, “the pilot is absolutely responsible” for his or her actions.
She also said when pilots are “fast moving, straight through the heart of the TFR,” NORAD must get planes in the air even as air controllers are trying to hail the pilot, because waiting can be catastrophic.
Rudinger did say that, since 2009, the AOPA, in cooperation with NORAD and the FAA, has seen incursions into presidential restricted spaces drop by half. She said any time a president is in an area, the association sends emails to all pilots in the region reminding them of the TFRs.
The bottom line, she said: see if Donald Trump is at Mar-a-Lago — there’s already a travel notice indicating the president plans to return this weekend — and check for any “notice to airmen” postings. And have your radio on and tuned in.
“They’re all good tips,” she said.