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Sat, May 17, 2003

ANN Editorial: The Washington State Of Mind

by Associate Editor Pete Combs

Don't Understand TFR's and The Disney No-Fly Zones?
Come To Washington. You'll Get It.

Ahhh, the sounds of sirens screaming in the night. Ahh, the flicker of a searchlight and the "whop-whop-whop" of composite blades beating the air as a police helicopter circles no more than 300 feet overhead. Ahh, the random gunfire.

It's good to be back home.

I'm originally from Washington, DC. However, I've been Living In America for the past 30 years and haven't been back much. In fact, this is my first extended stay in the nation's capitol since leaving in the 1970s. Boy, has this city changed.

Perspective

As a pilot and an editor for Aero-News Network, this place puts into perspective for me the "Men In Black" philosophy of the FAA, TSA, FBI and HSD. Federal Washington (the people who work here, as opposed to the people who live here) believes itself to be under seige. Every rental truck is a suicide bomber. Every person of Arab decent is a potential threat. Every cabbie is a maniac armed with a two-ton vehicle. Come to think of it, Federal Washington isn't so wrong about that last part, but we'll save it for another story.

Federal Washington believes we're overdue for a terrorist attack, be it from the truck bombers, the cabbies (the source of fear and loathing on the streets of our capitol city) or from the skies above. That's what seems to be driving the current crack-down on general aviation in particular and flying in general.

Navigationally Challenged

Wanna know exactly where the TFR you-can't-get-there-from-here mentality in Washington comes from? Right down to the cross-street?

First Street and Constitution Avenue.

That's on the southeast side of the US Capitol. With the construction of a new visitors' center and the incredible amount of security around the Capitol, the people who make yellow "Do Not Cross" tape are in hog heaven. The sidewalks are blocked. The cut-the-corner pathways are blocked. To get from one side of the Capitol to the other without a security clearance, you have walk four blocks around.

Parking? Fahged abouddit. Most of the parking lots around the Capitol are closed off and guarded by dozens of DC and Capitol police officers. More yellow tape. More barriers.

Federal Washington looks like an armed camp.

When it was designed, Washington was meant to be intimidating to visitors - hard to negotiate. Going from Point A to Point B is invariably a complicated affair. It always was. Now, however, add in the phalanx of security and yellow tape that surrounds the president, vice-president, cabinet members and members of Congress each time they move about town. A relatively sane cabbie (there are three or four in this city) told me the combined result is utter chaos on the streets of our nation's capitol. Even if you can find an address in this town, chances are, it's surrounded by yellow tape and HSD guards. You can't get there from here.

Even flying into Washington's Reagan National Airport is different. Remember the Potomac Tour, the scenic approach to DCA? It's now an obstacle course. Commercial passengers are strapped into their seats 30 minutes ahead of time and told not to get up for any reason - bathroom emergencies included.

The low-altitude banks of 60 degrees or more boggle the mind as the aircraft attempts to weave its way into DCA from the north. Remember the 14th Street Bridge, where Air Florida lost a flight in the snow two decades past? Our 757 crossed the bridge in a steep "oh-my God" bank. We were so low that, looking down onto the 14th Street Bridge, I could identify the make of the car directly below me (a Volvo), the race and gender of the driver (white male) and could see the fact that he was picking his nose.

So, when you wonder why the federal government seems so free to arbitrarily close portions of the sky, you now know. It's this city, Federal Washington. It's the seige mentality. It's the fact that lawmakers - up to and including our President - are so ensconced in the cocoon of yellow tape, armed patrols and look-under-the-car security, they seem to forget what it's like for us, the people who live and fly on the other side of the concrete barrier. What we have here, I said to the security guard frowning at me from the top of the Capitol steps, is a failure to communicate. He just frowned harder and crossed his arms.

FMI: www.ready.gov

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