Lots of chatter around the internet today on the discovery that the Federal Aviation Agency posted a notice making the area over the oil spill in Arkansas off limits to aircraft.
Some people claimed they were certain that it was because Exxon-Mobil paid to get a special favor; others wondered why the government would be complicit in such a deal. Several of the comments linked to aerial photos of the spill, and said ‘obviously’ Exxon Mobil doesn’t want photos of the severity of the spill to get out. Bill McKibben’s tweet alerted me to the controversy (take a look at that video, too).
Actually, it’s common procedure to make sport flying and other unnecessary flying over disasters, off limits — FAA has a special set of regulations for that. Rescuers and disaster fighters, and relief workers, don’t want sight-seers on visual flight rules posing hazards to flights necessary to work on disaster relief or clean up of a spill of a toxic or hazardous substance.
But this doesn’t mean that news organizations cannot fly — in fact, there is a special regulation to ALLOW news aircraft over the zone, for photography and other reports.
Here’s the notice at FAA’s website (I’m sure that link will be unworkable in a few weeks):
FAA notification, NOTAMs notice of Mayflower, Arkansas, temporary flight restrictions; screen grab April 3, 2013.
Most announcements of restrictions of any public activity by a federal agency contain a notice of from where the agency draws that authority; I didn’t include it in the screen grab, but FAA notes the authority flows from Title 14 CFR section 91.137(a)(2). That’s the Code of Federal Regulations, the set of volumes that list all the regulations the federal government has. This was also published in the Federal Register — and I suspect the NOTAMs is also published there — but CFR is the more permanent set of books for finding government rules.
In the interests of open government, of course the FAA makes these rules available online. They are available at several sites. Here’s the meat of the regulation:
Section 2. Temporary Flight Restrictions in the Vicinity of Disaster/Hazard Areas (14 CFR Section 91.137)
This section prescribes guidelines and procedures regarding the management of aircraft operations in the vicinity of disaster/hazard areas in accordance with 14 CFR Section 91.137. TFRs issued under this section are for disaster/hazard situations that warrant regulatory measures to restrict flight operations for a specified amount of airspace, on a temporary basis, in order to provide protection of persons or property in the air or on the ground.
TFRs in accordance with 14 CFR Section 91.137 are issued when necessary to:
a. 14 CFR 91.137(a)(1) – Protect persons and property on the surface or in the air from an existing or imminent hazard associated with an incident on the surface when the presence of low flying aircraft would magnify, alter, spread, or compound that hazard.
b. 14 CFR 91.137(a)(2) – Provide a safe environment for the operation of disaster relief aircraft.
c. 14 CFR 91.137(a)(3) – Prevent an unsafe congestion of sightseeing and other aircraft above an incident or event that may generate a high degree of public interest.
This provision applies only to disaster/hazard incidents of limited duration that would attract an unsafe congestion of sightseeing aircraft.
Specific rules of restrictions, who in the FAA declares them, who can grant waivers, and to who the restrictions apply, get spelled out following that part.
Notice that, generally, these restrictions apply only to flights below 1,000 feet. A good camera in a television station’s helicopter can get a lot of great shots from 1,000 feet out (three football fields) — this is a distance often seen in the videos of police car chases. So it’s not a complete ban.
Savvy news organizations will know how to get news photos using the specific exemption for news aircraft, with procedures spelled out so the FAA knows it’s a news gathering operation; I’ve put the critical clauses in red:
c. Section 91.137(a)(3). Restrictions issued in accordance with this section prohibit all aircraft from operating in the designated area unless at least one of the following conditions is met:
1. The operation is conducted directly to or from an airport within the area, or is necessitated by the impracticability of VFR flight above or around the area due to weather or terrain, and the operation is not conducted for the purpose of observing the incident or event. Notification must be given to the ATC facility that was specified in the NOTAM for coordination with the official in charge of the activity.
2. The aircraft is operating under an ATC approved IFR flight plan.
3. The aircraft is carrying incident or event personnel, or law enforcement officials.
4. The aircraft is carrying properly accredited news representatives and, prior to entering that area, a flight plan is filed with FSS or the ATC facility specified in the NOTAM. Flight plans must include aircraft identification, type, and color; radio frequencies to be used; proposed times of entry to and exit from the TFR area; the name of news media or organization and purpose of flight.
Well-run news organizations already know this; in an age when more and more news rooms operate on a shoe string, it may be that this information about how to cover disasters is not passed along in the newsroom, though. So I’m reposting it here, so you’ll know, so news organizations now, so environmental reporters can get a copy of the regulations to carry with them when they head out to cover spills, fires, floods, and other disasters.
I’m waiting, too. It’s only a matter of time until somebody figures out a local kid has a good radio control helicopter, and it can carry a GoPro camera; or until a local news station invests in a news-gathering drone. Here in Texas, we’ve already had one environmental disaster uncovered by a drone operated by a guy just checking on real estate.
If you see some footage of the disaster filmed on or after April 3, would you let us know, in comments?
And spread the word to any reporters you know.
Amateur video of the spill: