Would the Government Have Shot Down a Flight Trying to Avoid a Helicopter?

Washington National airport, the close-in airport for DC, has strict rules for routing landings and departures. This is both the result of noise restrictions but also for security. Planes come close to national monuments and even the White House. Deviate and fighter jets can scramble. Miss and approach and you can get sent to Dulles airport.

Most of downtown D.C. below 18,000 feet is prohibited airspace. There’s a narrow path pilots have to fly, that’s pretty cool for passengers. The River Visual approach causes aircraft to hug the Potomac and turn just before landing.

Flights taking off to the North climb quickly and turn left — one doesn’t want to get shot down approaching the Washington Monument and White House!

On Friday, American Airlines AA3803, operated by Air Wisconsin, “crossed through a no-fly zone [on departure] near the Capitol prompting authorities to raise their security level.”

The Toronto flight:

departed Ronald Reagan National Airport’s runway 01, takeoff clearance included a traffic advisory of a helicopter at 200 feet in the departure path, and was handed off to Potomac Departure, but did not report on Potomac Depature frequency. The aircraft crossed through a no-fly zone near the Capitol prompting authorities to raise their security level. Radio contact with the aircraft was subseqently re-established. The aircraft continued to Toronto for a safe landing on schedule.

After radio contact was restored the alert was cancelled.

Pilots are trained in this area before being allowed to fly through it. The Air Wisconsin pilots were certainly aware of the restrictions, and the need not to deviate course or lose communication. The helicopter in the departure path may be a clue, with pilots more concerned with air traffic in their vicinity than switching communication frequency quickly enough and making their required turn.

This wasn’t much of a deviation, but it doesn’t take much.

Raising the security level almost certainly meant starting the process towards preparation for intercept. Thank goodness communications were re-established quickly.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I’m not one to cry “click-bait” at every slightly exaggerated headline or credit card push, but this has to be one of the more egregious examples of sensationalist headline-writing.

  2. Headline is really misleading and is plainly speculative. No actual news site would run with this based solely on the facts presented here. Would be stronger if there were quotes from someone in a position of authority on the matter or someone who knows what’s happened in previous cases. Violations of the P56 restricted airspace are not that unusual and have been reported on many times.

  3. Headline was a question, based on the reported fact that security alert level was changed and that standard procedure is to scramble. Though in fact the government likely was preparing as part of its standard procedure. That’s how the procedure is supposed to work.

  4. Wow. That’s terrifying. It’s unusual that no other news outlets are reporting that a plane was nearly shot out of the sky.
    Seriously, click bait is out of control on the site. You are going to lose a loyal reader.

  5. Way to sensationalist. The fact you run a headline with a question suggests lack of in depth journalism. This feels more like Fox News reporting

  6. @Mike it’s not intended as “in depth Journalism” it is presenting a fact that happened, pairing it against standard procedure, and saying “wow that’s scary” because a minor deviation really has scary consequences. And that probably should yield some conversations around standard procedures.

    Some will say “it makes sense, because the stakes in the nation’s capital are huge,” others will say “given these risks the airport shouldn’t be open at all” and still others will say “we’re too close to the trigger and standard procedure shouldn’t put passenger lives at risk.”

    But seems pretty important to me. Which is why I wrote about it on my blog. Whether you agree, or the topic interests you, is certainly YMMV. I do think this is pretty sensational, a big deal.

  7. This is a serious issue, thank you Gary for bringing it to light. I hadn’t realized such strict measures were in place for Reagan Airport.

  8. Enough I agree with others this was a bait and switch headline. Come on Gary you can and have done better.

    For the record I use to live in DC, ex AF and can assure you there are means to eliminate the threat if became apparent that it’s course would continue and become real.

    I think ALL the people writing do over all a good job, but come on we’re not stupid out here!

  9. not clickbait. just another interesting headline on Gary’s blog. for those reading him for years it was just another creative way to point us to the piece. i look forward to his teasers.

    so, whose helicopter was that? in the flight path? what was the separation?

  10. Ridiculous headline.

    Even if the standard procedure is “starting the process towards preparation for intercept.” That’s a long ways from shooting down a civilian airliner over a metropolitan area.

    (and before anyone says I’m not in tune with the security situation at Reagan – I lived in DC for more than 10 years, and flew in and out of DCA an average of twice a month)

  11. There’s nothing at all wrong with the title of this post or its content. The title describes exactly what you’ll find in the post, a question about what the military was doing considering the flight had deviated and lost contact.

  12. Conde Nast should revoke whatever title it gives this guy for suggesting passengers were or can be in imminent danger of being shot down. Completely irresponsible.

  13. As a former American Eagle pilot (the real American eagle, not air wic), I can tell you my experience with north DCA departures. In short, YOU TURN! Not because you are concerned with being shot down. We turn because if we don’t and we violate P56,we WILL have some explaining to do- to the secret service! Oh, and probably the FAA. I know someone to whom this happened. They briefly crossed the river northbound before turning and were in radio contact with DCA tower and STILL the Feds were waiting for them at the gate when they got to Chicago. Whether or not there are hidden missile batteries or anything else by the White House, I don’t know. I never worried about it. I don’t know their security procedure. I only know our flight procedures! You turn! We brief it before takeoff. We have indicators in the flight management computer. We pretty much start the turn as soon as we lift off the ground. If there was a helicopter there, certainly the pilots may have been trying to aquire it visually. That does not remove the restriction. We all, as pilots out of DCA, know that the prohibited area is there. And unless impact with that helicopter was imminent, there is little to excuse the violation. We are all human. We all make mistakes. Nothing “bad” happened, so lesson learned. But possibly being shot down? I highly doubt it.

  14. So anytime a cop pulls over a minivan for speeding, Gary should ask if the police are preparing to shoot a mom in front of her kids.

    Because there is some possibility of that on the list of procedures.

    Gary is a caricature of himself these days. What a joke.

  15. It’s gotten to the point where I treat a Gary VFTW post like a Vice post on Facebook. The actual articles are hit and miss, but man can I always count on the commenters to come through. We got some seriously massochistic people in both comment sections, seemingly following just so they can proclaim how awful the content or headlines are on every post. I’m not even upset; I’m impressed!

  16. It’s about time they shut down that airport and consolidate everything at IAD. Talk about Congressmen’s entitlement. If this was in any other city (airport next to sensitive military buildings, for example) it would have been closed long time ago. There’s the Congresspeople and then there’s us, the little people.

  17. @Ted, good luck convincing all the “little people” that live in the area that DCA should be closed and all of us sent out to IAD.

    A whole lot more “little people” fly DCA than do congresspersons.

    As for this article, I don’t think the author is talking much about what he actually knows. I’m not going to say it is sensationalist, but it certainly is uninformed.

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