This Sunday's Super Bowl will draw a tremendous crowd in and around the Mercedes-Benz stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. Of course, a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) will be enacted for everyone's safety. We explore the good, bad, and ugly parts of the temporary halt to drone flights in this designated area.
First, the “Good”
TFRs are airspace restrictions placed by the FAA for special events. They prohibit all non-approved flight during events and over areas for security and safety reasons. In many (most) instances, this is a very good idea. TFR’s cover all sorts of events including sports, VIP movement, and hazards including wildfires.
With the security issues of today, imagine what would happen at an NFL football game every time someone wanted to fly over the arena in a plane, or with a drone, to get a better perspective. Everyone in the stadium would panic, and security would go nuts. In case you weren't aware of this critical detail, there are more than just private security and police officers at NFL games these days. Homeland Security is present as well.
Imagine what would happen if you accidentally flew your drone near a Presidential motorcade. One poor sap didn’t have to as his actions made a worst-case scenario reality. He was detained by the Secret Service in Hawaii after he inadvertently flew near an Obama motorcade. He was let off the hook once they figured it was an innocent mistake, but I’m sure he had more than just a few moments of life choice reassessment while in Secret Service custody. Those are ladies and gents you never want holding the handcuffs keys.
While I hope we can all agree that TFRs are a good thing, I also hope we can acknowledge that sometimes they’re overly broad. TFRs are a “one size fits all” solution to a “more than one size” problem. A good example is this weekend’s Super Bowl in Atlanta. It has a 30-mile radius from 5:30 pm to midnight on February 3rd. While that makes sense for manned aviation, it seems a bit much for unmanned. It’s the same with Presidential TFRs. Understandably broad at times, they're still frustrating for sUAS operators. Maybe this issue will be addressed at some point?
Another problem is that some security and law enforcement don’t always understand the nuances of a TFR. Which brings us to...
I’ll start by saying that security folks, law enforcement, and even the Secret Service have a variety of potential hazards to deal with during a security TFR and drones aren’t necessarily foremost in their minds. A problem for sure, but it would be unfair to expect perfection from them.
Case in point: a friend of mine, Kerry Garrison, woke up early one Sunday a few weeks ago and decided to go and to get a nice sunrise drone shot of Mile High stadium with the skyline of Denver in the background. That’s a spectacular shot I’ve always wanted to get, but he decided to actually get out of bed and go do it.
That particular Sunday was a home game for the Denver Broncos, and as such subject to the Stadium TFR, technically now a NOTAM (https://tfr.faa.gov/save_pages/detail_7_4319.html). I actually have a copy of this printed out and in my Policy and Procedures manual. That TFR prohibits flights from 1 hour before to 1 hour after qualifying events. After Kerry was done flying, and as he was putting his drone away, two private security guards came up to him (he was flying off-site), telling him it was illegal for him to fly there that day. They said there was a TFR in place, and Homeland Security asked them to come up and tell him to quit flying.
Obviously, they were in the wrong. The game time was 2:00 pm that day, so the TFR wasn’t in affect until 1:00 pm. Kerry had every right to be flying there and tried to explain the issue to them, but they weren’t convinced. Since he was done flying, anyway, and didn’t really have the time or desire to deal with it, he just finished putting the drone away and went home.
This is just one of many ugly instances of aggressively enforced, and/or incorrectly applied TFRs. Education of those charged with enforcement is necessary, as is pilot education. Kerry even used this incident to later call stadium security and explain the situation. The lady he talked to apologized and said Kerry was right, and she would make sure everyone understood the rules for the next time.
Hopefully this story encourages you to take advantage of situations like this and help smooth the way for the next drone operator who may want to (legally) do that same thing.
So how do we educate ourselves?
As part of any pre-flight planning, all pilots (manned or unmanned) should always check for TFRs. You can do that one of two ways.
The easiest way is check the FAA TFR site, https://tfr.faa.gov/tfr2/list.html. Navigate to your state and check to see if there are any active TFRs in place. If you see an active one, don’t fly. It’s quick and easy. The problem is that the FAA page is only a good way to get a definite “No” for a flight. That site doesn’t give you a definite “Yes.” It even says so at the bottom of the page. If you scroll to the bottom of the page, it states "Depicted TFR data may not be a complete listing. Pilots should not use the information on this website for flight planning purposes. For the latest information, call your local Flight Service Station at 1-800-WX-BRIEF.“
This leads us to the second way (& the only one the FAA accepts for true TFR info) to confirm there is no TFR in place. Call the number above. They’re there to help you, and if it’s your first time calling, let them know that. They’ll take the time to explain things thoroughly. They really are there to help.
You can also use trustworthy apps such as Kittyhawk. Open the app, navigate to the area you want to fly, and get instant airspace information. Again, this is a convenient way to get a definite “No,” but not an official FAA “Yes.” If you do use it, take a screen shot from your phone. It might come in handy at a later date.
Keep yourself flying safe (& out of handcuffs) by checking for TFRs if you have any question, at all, about where you’re going to fly.
And, as always, fly safe and have fun!
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