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FAA warns pilots of security restrictions during Obama's visit to Alaska

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published August 21, 2015

President Barack Obama's trip to Alaska later this month will impact air traffic – right at the start of fall duck and moose hunting seasons – but just how much is not yet known.

The Federal Aviation Administration issued an advisory Friday related to a "VIP Visit" in Alaska. The agency warns it will be issuing "multiple Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFR) in support of a VIP visit to Anchorage, Seward, Dillingham and Kotzebue" starting Aug. 31 and running through Sept. 2.

The VIP is unnamed, but that is how FAA security measures refer to the president. The dates match with when Alaska officials expect Obama to be in the state.

Some hunters are adjusting their schedules just in case, to make sure they are not grounded. In Southcentral, fall waterfowl season starts Sept. 1. Moose seasons generally start between Aug. 25 and Sept. 1, depending on the hunting area, according to Ken Marsh, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Exact locations and times for flight restrictions have not been determined but will be published soon in notices to airmen, or NOTAMs, according to the FAA.

Scheduled commercial passenger and cargo flights typically are allowed, the FAA said. But smaller planes face restrictions and floatplanes in particular may be grounded for at least some of that time, according to the advisory.

John Parrott, manager of Stevens Anchorage International Airport, said he expects some limits on Lake Hood – often described as the world's busiest floatplane base -- as well as Merrill Field, Birchwood Airport and other airfields in the area.

"But I don't have a good feel for what those constraints will be," Parrott said. "I don't know if there will be certain times they can't fly or certain directions they can't fly or if there will be someone monitoring the activity and checking who's flying. I simply don't have an answer for that yet."

The FAA classifies the sensitive airspace around the president as "National Defense Airspace" and warns that violations will be dealt with seriously.

Pilots could face fines, criminal charges – or worse.

"The United States Government may use deadly force against the airborne aircraft, if it is determined that the aircraft poses an imminent security threat," the advisory said.

President Obama is coming to Alaska for a visit focused on climate change. If the trip goes as planned, he will land Aug. 31 on Air Force One at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. The White House has said the president will give a speech that day to an Anchorage conference on the Arctic organized by the State Department but has not announced other details of his schedule. Advance teams have been scouting in Dillingham, Kotzebue and Seward.

While specifics for Alaska are not yet announced, typically there's an inner 10-mile zone with the most restrictive measures, then an outer ring affecting aircraft 10 miles to 30 miles out, the FAA said.

Generally, within the inner core of 10 miles, the only flights allowed are by law enforcement, air ambulances, military aircraft supporting the Secret Service and regularly scheduled commercial passenger and cargo carriers, the FAA said.

In the outer ring, planes generally must be on active flight plans with an assigned, discrete code that they squawk while in the restricted area. They must be in constant radio communications with air traffic control, the FAA said.

But floatplanes, along with drones, ultralights and model rockets, among others, generally are grounded during restricted times, the FAA said.

Whether that will happen for minutes, hours or days isn't yet specified.

Parrott said he hopes pilots, regulators and the president's security detail figure out an acceptable resolution that doesn't overly restrict flights by small planes.

"No general aviation within 30 miles of JBER for three days at the beginning of moose and duck season is not going to be a pleasant time," Parrott said.

Just in case, Marsh, of Fish and Game, said he rescheduled his own fall bird hunt to avoid being grounded.

"The no-fly zones will definitely seem to affect hunters who have planned to fly from the Anchorage area between Aug. 31 and Sept. 2," he said in an email. He had seen the FAA advisory.

He and a friend are flying out of Lake Hood Aug. 30, two days earlier than planned, for a hunt on the Susitna Flats across Cook Inlet.

"Luckily, we have a nice cabin to stay in, so the extra time should be pretty pleasurable," he said.

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