Heads Up! Satellite Coming Down

Yesterday I was flying a light airplane from the middle of Kentucky to Gaithersburg, outside Washington DC. It was a flight that had its own complications, which I will describe some other time.* But what got my attention was the pre-flight briefing.

Usually when I'm filing an instrument flight plan, I just do it over the computer. It's quicker and less error-prone. But I was at a place where I didn't have a connection, so I called Flight Service to enter my altitude, waypoints, destination, time-en-route, and so on. The briefer asked if I needed any weather updates, and I said that I thought I was all set. Then he added, "I am required to read you the following NOTAM [Notice to Airmen]" -- which I quote below, and which I just now received again by email in a burst dispatch to all pilots on the FAA's mailing list:

mir_reentry.jpgSatellite re-entry red alert - FAA NOTAM issued
FDC 1/2095 - .. SPECIAL NOTICE .. EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY UNTIL 1109252359 UTC [Sunday at 8pm EDT]. AIRCRAFT ARE ADVISED THAT A POTENTIAL HAZARD MAY OCCUR DUE TO REENTRY OF SATELLITE UARS INTO THE EARTH'S ATMOSPHERE.

FURTHER NOTAMS WILL BE ISSUED IF SPECIFIC INFORMATION BECOMES AVAILABLE.

IN THE INTEREST OF FLIGHT SAFETY, IT IS CRITICAL THAT ALL PILOTS/FLIGHT CREW MEMBERS REPORT ANY OBSERVED FALLING SPACE DEBRIS TO THE APPROPRIATE ATC FACILITY AND INCLUDE POSITION, ALTITUDE, TIME,AND DIRECTION OF DEBRIS OBSERVED. THE DOMESTIC EVENTS NETWORK /DEN/ TELEPHONE 202-XXX-XXXX, IS THE FAA COORDINATION FACILITY.

I told the briefer, "Well, that is the most interesting NOTAM I have heard in a long time." He said, "Yes, keep your eyes peeled, looking up. You don't want to miss that 'falling space debris'." Somehow it is exciting to be part of big cosmic events.

UPDATE: Thanks to a reader in the sciences for a link to this reentry-info site, from the Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies.
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*Short version: unexpected electric-system problems en route, leading to the question of exactly how long should I keep going before I land and see what's wrong. Answer was: stop at the very next reasonable-size airport I came to -- which was Charleston WV, where a broken alternator got fixed and then all was well. Satellite-debris photo, from an earlier re-entry, comes from here.

** Why do I post these oddball aviation items? In part to "normalize" the concept that regular people might actually fly airplanes.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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