D.C. Special Flight Rules Area

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Matt Gabbard, CFII, CSIP, Ferry Pilot

Matt has been flying for over two decades and has extensive knowledge of different aircraft and avionics, he is a talented photographer and enjoys traveling, history and astronomy. 

Quote to live by: "Whatever you are, be a good one." ~ Abraham Lincoln


D.C. Special Flight Rules Area

I was a little nervous as I prepared to enter the Washington, DC SFRA. The Special Flight Rules Area encompasses a huge amount of airspace around the nation’s capital, helping to maintain security for important landmarks, historic buildings and of course, government officials. Beginning as the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), and established in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the SFRA (commonly pronounced SIF-RA) was primarily meant to govern visual flight rules (VFR) aircraft as they entered, exited and transited the DC metropolitan area. After its emergence into the already complicated US airspace scene, over 1,000 violations and flight incursions eventually sparked the FAA to require all VFR pilots to partake in specialized training for operating in the SFRA. Before navigating VFR into the Washington SFRA, pilots are required by law to take an internet course titled “DC Special Flight Rules Area”.

This course is offered free to all pilots on the FAA Safety web page under Wings Courses, ALC-405. A certificate is offered upon completion and pilots should print it and carry it with them in the event they are ramp-checked at an airport within the SFRA.

In addition, if they should inadvertently commit an airspace violation within the DC area, showing proof that the course has been completed can help the pilot avoid additional violations.

It is recommended that all pilots, not just VFR pilots, take this course. Although I was on an instrument flight rules (IFR) flight plan, I completed the course so that I would be prepared in the event I would need to operate VFR in the SFRA.

The operating parameters of the SFRA include a large, 60 nautical mile radius circle around the Washington (DCA) VOR. Inside this circle is another, even more restrictive area of airspace called the Flight Restriction Zone, or FRZ (pronounced FREEZE).

Although not a perfect circle, this smaller airspace volume, still centered on the DCA VOR, is limited in use for qualified air carriers (flying into Reagan National), law enforcement operations and general aviation pilots who have passed several other stringent requirements in order to gain access.

Thankfully, my destination airport lay just outside of the FRZ. Freeway Airport (W00) is a small, general aviation airport that is only one nautical mile from the eastern boundary of the FRZ. You can probably see why I was a bit on edge (pun not intended).

Making this trip in a general aviation (GA) airplane, although well-equipped, is stressful enough in good weather. I wanted to make sure that was the case on this particular day. Although I took off in marginal VFR and had to deal with some bumps and moderate rain showers in clouds along the way, the ceiling and visibility were both more than adequate when I was making my approach.

As a GA pilot, one can never be absolutely sure as to what route one will receive on any IFR flight, so I did my best to determine the most likely route.

I frequently use Fltplan.com to file my fight plans, and they have a great feature on their site that shows what pilots of similar makes and models received for their IFR flights. There weren’t too many IFR flights going from LEX to W00, so next I checked what, if any, arrival procedures were available. The TIKEE THREE arrival looked as if it would fit my needs perfectly, keeping me clear of the FRZ and taking me along the southern portion of the SFRA. I filed this STAR (standard terminal arrival route) and sure enough, I received an “as filed” clearance for this flight.

IFR flight in the SFRA is really no big deal. As long as you are on an IFR flight plan and have a discreet beacon code, it is really pretty simple. This was the case for my flight into W00. I chose to do the RNAV (GPS) 36 approach, partly because of the proximity to the FRZ, and partly because finding such a small airport can sometimes be difficult unless you are lined up with the runway.

The controller asked me if I intended to remain IFR all the way to the ground, to which I replied in the affirmative, for fear that I might subconsciously squawk 1200 after canceling. That was the only concern I had before I landed – if I canceled IFR, would I then be VFR and if so, do I then need to follow the VFR SFRA rules? I decided to play it safe. The controller gave me a telephone number to call once on the ground for closing my flight plan, and after clearing the runway, this was the first action I did (via my nifty Bose headset connected to my phone via Bluetooth).

At this point, I was almost finished with the DC SFRA (or so I thought). All that was needed to do was a quick test flight with a mechanic, sitting in for the buyer.

Now we truly were VFR, and I was able to see how this was done. The mechanic, also a pilot, filed a “SFRA flight plan” so that our movements within the airspace could be tracked. Once filed, he called Potomac approach and received a discreet squawk code. We put this in, departed and immediately contacted Potomac approach.

Other than remaining clear of the Class B airspace overlying us, it was really no different from the hundreds of times I have departed LEX Class C airspace. We kept the same beacon code all the way to the ground and canceled the flight plan.

I stayed the night in Baltimore, fully expecting to be able to go home the next day via commercial airline. But my time dealing with the SFRA wasn’t over yet.

The airplane I was delivering had recently had an engine overhaul. A slight oil leak had been revealed during the pre-purchase inspection earlier that day. The overhaul itself was still under warranty. As part of the purchase agreement, AirMart was responsible to take the airplane back to the shop that had performed the overhaul so the that the oil leak could be properly repaired. As I was waiting for my flight home in the BWI airport (past airport security), I received the call to take the airplane back for this repair.

I will admit, I was a little bit stressed at this point. I had to leave the BWI airport, secure an Uber to make the 40 minute trip to W00, and accomplish all my flight planning on the way.

To make matters more stressful, the airplane had just been through an inspection (and wasn’t yet put back together), I had to put fuel in it, darkness was near, there was some weather on my route, the winds were picking up, and I had to figure out how to legally depart the SFRA under IFR.

Instead of relaxing and sipping a Diet Coke on an airliner, I was multi-tasking all of these considerations with time constraints.  

After checking for any departure procedures (and finding none), I filed for the Nottingham VOR (OTT) then direct. I called the same phone number to talk to Potomac approach in order to get my clearance before departing. My clearance was to depart runway 36 and make a right turn out to the east and receive vectors to OTT, direct COLIN intersection, direct Richmond VOR (RIC), then direct.

After programming the Garmin 530 and 430 and putting in my discreet squawk code (NEVER squawk 1200 in the SFRA!), I departed and successfully and landed on the repairing shop’s home field at about 7:45 pm, well after dark. I was very happy to be back on the ground.

As with so many other procedures in place for the safe movement of air traffic, flying into and out of the SFRA was relatively painless; however, flying in and around the nation’s capital shouldn’t be taken lightly. Always check notams, try and fly when other risks or stress-inducing factors can be reduced (weather, personal health, etc.), and take the free online course for flying in the SFRA, whether you plan to fly VFR or IFR. If you do all of these, flying near the FRZ can be a breeze.