TFRs on the Rise…

You have probably noticed that the number and frequency of Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) affecting model aircraft have increased over the past several weeks. This is not too surprising and unfortunately the occurrence of TFRs is likely to increase even further as we get into the heart of the 2012 presidential campaign. Following Mitt Romney’s apparent clinching of the republican nomination, the Obama campaign has shifted into high gear and with it VIP TFRs as the president travels around the country.

Since January 2009, restrictions on model aircraft operations have been included as part of the security measures imposed whenever the president travels within the US. They also come into play during high-profile events such as the recent 25th NATO Summit held in Chicago, the G-8 Summit Meeting in Hagerstown, MD and Super Bowl XLVI held in Indianapolis. We will also see similar TFRs for the Republican National Convention in Tampa, FL in August and the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, NC in September.

Many have asked why radio controlled model aircraft operations are included in the restrictions and prohibited while a VIP TFR is in effect… Is it because model airplanes are viewed as posing a threat to our national security and the welfare of our heads of state? Actually no, that’s not necessarily the case. Certainly AMA doesn’t believe this, and I don’t believe the FAA or the Secret Service believes this, or any of the many other federal, state and local agencies involved in developing and implementing these security measures. However, the recent advancements in unmanned aircraft technology and the advent of UAS operations have significantly clouded the issue. Many of the UAS platforms appear very similar to what we otherwise think of as model aircraft and without going into a lot of detail, it’s easy to imagine an unmanned aircraft designed to be harmful, disruptive or even lethal.

In a security zone those monitoring the airspace must be able to tell friend from foe. In the case of manned aircraft, those allowed to fly within the TFR must be on a flight plan, must be communicating with air traffic control and must be ‘squawking’ an assigned transponder code. Everything else must remain on the ground or outside the TFR. In the case of unmanned aircraft there currently is no definitive way to tell friend from foe, so the current procedure is to ground all unmanned aircraft within the TFR, including model aircraft. Therefore anything else appearing in the airspace is viewed as suspect.

But, why such a large area? Current TFRs typically go out 30 nautical miles (34.5 statute miles) and encompass an area of over 3,700 sq miles. In some instances TFR distances have gone out as far as 40nm. To be honest, I don’t know how 30nm was determined to be the appropriate distance, and this is something AMA will continue to question. However, the size of the TFR area is relative to the reaction time/distance deemed necessary to detect and intercept an intruder, keeping in mind that the intent is to intercept and neutralize an intruder as far away from the center as possible.

Aviation safety is also a consideration in developing these security measures, but not necessarily in the traditional sense. If and when an intruder aircraft is detected within the protected airspace, airborne assets are deployed. These intercept aircraft employ very aggressive tactical operations to counter the threat and the airspace must be as clear as possible to allow them to operate safely. That is why in addition to unmanned aircraft other nonessential aeronautical operations are also curtailed. As such the following paragraph appears in the Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) for these TFRs:


AMA believes there are alternative means available for achieving the desired level of security without restricting MA operations in the current manner. We are currently working with FAA’s Special Operations Security division along with the National Aeronautic Association (NAA) and the other sport aviation groups in an effort to obtain relief for our members and the aero sport community in general.

AMA’s approach is to first gain protection for our high-profile sanctioned events. If we are successful here, we then want to address waivers or exceptions for established (AMA) flying sites, and ultimately to exempt model aviation from the TFRs altogether.

Recently we were successful in clarifying the intent and scope of the restrictions as it pertains to model aircraft. Previously the NOTAMs spoke to prohibiting “model aircraft” operations within the TFR. This left unclear whether this included control line and free flight activities. It certainly seemed unlikely that CL and FF would present the same concerns as radio controlled models, so AMA sought clarification from the System Operations Support Center (SOSC). Ultimately we were able to get this issue resolved and the language in the NOTAMs changed. The language in the TFRs now refers to “radio controlled model aircraft”, a small concession but certainly a step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the federal government and especially national security the wheels turn very slowly and this is proving to be a long painstaking process.  I suspect it will be some time before we see any significant relief, and we may not see any real change until there is a change for the better in the global political climate.

Rich Hanson
AMA Government and Regulatory Affairs

Though it is primarily the VIP TFRs and Special Security Event (SSE) TFRs that affect model aviation, there are many other Temporary Flight Restrictions routinely issued that affect commercial and general aviation. Click the link below to learn how the FAA handles TFR requests and how these restrictions are developed and communicated to the aviation community.

“Taking the Mystery Out of Temporary Flight Restrictions”


  1. Why not an exemption for motorless flight too? its pretty absurd to think a sailplane could with any acuracy be piloterd to a target 15 miles away, carrying any weaponry. Why would a sailplane be such a greater risk than a free flight?

    1. Absolutely… Excellent suggestion Ken!

      I think the next push should be to get the langauge in the NOTAM/TFR changed to read, “Powered Radio Controlled Model Aircraft”. However, it would need to be clear that we are talking about true sailplanes and not electric powered gliders.

      Rich Hanson
      AMA Government and Regulatory Affairs

  2. My question on this topic is whether or not our models show up on an ATC’s radar screen. If they do, then I can fully understand the FAA and Homeland Security’s reluctance to have us aloft during a TFR. If the resources available to negate a threat are dispatched over a model aircraft that appears on the radar and subsequently are not available to eliminate a real threat to the POTUS or other dignitary then we have done ourselves, as well as the rest of the country, a disservice. Most of the TFR’s are only a day or two in duration, and while a nuisance, I for one can live with being grounded for that period.
    However, in the case of “Monster Planes”, “Top Gun” the Frank Noll, or other large scale events, I can understand that an effort needs to be made to allow those events to continue given the amount of advance planning and expenditure by the promoters and participants. Dignitaries have little regard for the impact they have on the general population when planning their own events and need to do so instead of acting on their whims which affect events that have been planned well in advance of the advertised dates.
    In other words, if they want us to work with them, then maybe thay need to work with us a little bit as well.

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