The cost of "security" (Cory Lidle connection)

The post-9/11 "security" restrictions in airspace around Washington have always been pointless. Now they may actually have killed people -- or helped to, and the ones who perished were not terrorists.

A year ago in the Washington Post, I discussed an aspect of the current security mania that would be the subject of widespread ridicule if it affected more than a handful of people, but that continues because it is still largely unknown. These are the nutty and abusive "ADIZ" rules that apply to air traffic for thousands of square miles surrounding Washington DC. Here is one map, showing the "Flight Restricted Zone" that covers much more territory than the Beltway does and that no one except airliners (or police or the military) can ever enter; plus the much larger Air Defense Identification Zone, which requires cumbersome procedures before aircraft can enter. (Prettier map, but slower to load, here.)

Essentially these rules create a vast burden of nuisance-regulation for everyone involved in aviation. Air traffic controllers hate the system, because they have to monitor and give clearances to hundreds of pilots per day they could otherwise leave on their own. The Federal Aviation Administration truly hates the system, because regulators are forced to track down and prosecute every accidental or foolish violator. And all violators have fallen into that category so far: in the three and a half years in which these rules have been in place, the many thousands of enforcement actions have not yet produced any malicious-minded or quasi terrorist activities. It's as if the police, DAs, and judges were tied up arresting and prosecuting everyone who didn't have a "Support the Troops!" decal on their car.

(So why are the rules there? Because the security officials, apparently most of all the Secret Service, tell the FAA that they have to be.)

When the FAA proposed making the rules permanent, it got more than 20,000 written comments on its web site -- virtually every one of them hostile. You can read the entirety of them here. A particularly vivid and bitter description of the system from an insider is quoted at the end of this previous post.

The rules may have gone from pointless to actively dangerous. In the last five years, the fear of breaking airspace regulations has increased for pilots. The Cory Lidle case may prove to be an illustration (stipulating: not all the facts are known). Why did the flight instructor riding along with Lidle try to make the difficult and dangerous "box canyon turn" that apparently led to his smashing into a building? The alternative would have been plowing into LaGuardia's airspace -- which, for a pilot in his 20s looking forward to a long career, would have been a serious black mark. Yes, yes, yes, a black mark would be infinitely preferable to a fatal crash, but this could have been a factor in the pilot's decision. And at least the LaGuardia airspace is there for a good and necessary reason.

Now we may an ADIZ-influenced crash. Last week a small single-engne plane crashed north of Washington, killing two people. (More details on, scroll down several screens' worth.) A chilling tape recording of the pilot's last communication with Air Traffic Control shows the controller telling the pilot that he has broken the ADIZ rules -- which, again, pose no safety or security threat to anyone anywhere -- but that if he hurries in for an emergency landing at the closest airport, he may "get away" with it. The pilot tried to make a quick landing, and crashed. The skies over Washington are "safe," but he and his passenger are dead.

[Translation of the ATC recording:

The first voice is the controller, saying "Go ahead" to the airplane that has just called up giving its tail number.

Next is the pilot, asking for an "IFR clearance." When the weather is good enough to take off without going into the clouds, but bad enough somewhere along the route that the pilot wants to follow an instrument flight plan (or for some other reason wants to fly on an instrument plan), the pilot will often take off without a clearance and contact Air Traffic Control once airborne. This is perfectly legal (in most airspace, and except at the larger airports) and, in the right weather, safe.

The controller asks the pilot if he is "squawking 1200." This is the normal code when an airplane is not in direct contact with air traffic control, and just about every place except inside the ADIZ it would be the right code to use in these circumstances. Inside the Washington DC, using the 1200 code at any time constitutes a violation.

The pilot answers "Roger that" -- he is on the code (in theory, "affirmative" would be the answer, but that's the least of the problems).

The controller immediately tells him that he is "violating the ADIZ" -- words to terrify anyone flying the DC area -- and that he must land immediately at the small Tipton airport from which he has just taken off. The controller also says "I'll give you a phone number" equally dreaded words, meaning, essentially, turn yourself in to the authorities when you land.

The pilot says he will comply. The controller gives him a new squawk code (to replace 1200) and tells him how to begin the approach.

Then the controller says, "I'm too busy to give you that phone number, maybe you'll get away." That is, if you get on the ground in a big hurry, maybe they won't catch up with you.

The controller was acting like a normal human being -- and shows how little controllers think of this whole set of rules. He was trying to help the pilot. The pilot scurried to comply -- and, although we don't know the reasons, shortly thereafter he crashed.]

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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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