MacDill dominates chunk of sky
By JEAN HELLER, Times Staff Writer
A great deal has been said and written in the past week about the restricted airspace around MacDill Air Force Base. It held little in the way of public interest until 15-year-old Charles Bishop flew a small, stolen Cessna four-seater through it on his way to a suicide crash into a downtown Tampa bank building.
Now there are few in the Tampa Bay region who haven't heard of MacDill's airspace, but not many understand just what it is, why it's there and how it works.
All public airports are surrounded by some sort of controlled airspace, chunks of the sky where pilots cannot fly their airplanes without following some very specific rules. The rules can be as simple as requiring a pilot to have a working two-way radio and to broadcast to other pilots on a designated frequency his position and intentions.
Busier airspace might require that the plane have equipment that identifies it and displays its altitude on controllers' radar screens. It might require the pilot to be in contact with the air traffic control facility with jurisdiction over the airspace. In some cases, the pilot would be required to get permission from controllers to enter the airspace.
The purpose of controlled airspace is quite simple. It is needed in areas where a lot of aircraft are coming and going to keep order and ensure that nobody bumps into anybody else.
A pilot who violates the rules of controlled airspace risks losing his license.
In the case of MacDill, the controlled airspace is also restricted, sharply curtailing its use. This is deemed necessary for security, because the base is the headquarters of U.S. Central Command, which is running the war in Afghanistan.
The airspace that dominates the region -- that belonging to Tampa International Airport -- is controlled but doesn't have the same restrictions as MacDill's. It's also bigger and more complex. The chart that defines the airspace resembles a large sheet of paper on which a child went crazy drawing circles inside circles.
With the airport as the epicenter, TIA's airspace looks like an upside-down wedding cake. The largest layer sits on top and extends outward from 45 miles from the airport to nearly 60 miles, into the Gulf of Mexico to the west, into Hernando County to the north, to Plant City to the east and into Manatee County to the south.
In this layer, a pilot is required to have the radar reporting equipment and a two-way radio when flying between 6,000 and 10,000 feet. The requirements get tougher as the plane flies closer to TIA.
The smallest layer of the wedding cake is about 12 miles in diameter and sits right on top of the airport. In this cylinder, the airspace extends from the surface of the ground and water to 10,000 feet. A pilot inside this cylinder must be in voice and radar contact with controllers and must have permission to be in this core layer.
At least 10 other airports, including St. Petersburg-Clearwater International, where Bishop took off, and MacDill, lie under the tiers of TIA's wedding cake.
When Bishop flew southeast across Tampa Bay, he entered MacDill's airspace, which extends from the surface to 1,600 feet and outward from the runway in an irregular circle.
Before Sept. 11, a pilot could have requested clearance from either MacDill or TIA controllers to fly through that area.
"We exchanged operational control of that airspace with MacDill controllers as needed back then," said Joe Foster, the former FAA tower chief at TIA. "If a civilian aircraft was under air traffic control, it could even land at MacDill with prior permission."
Airliners, sometimes 100 or more a day, routinely flew through MacDill airspace as they approached TIA for landing from the south (aircraft taking off to the south fly a special route for noise-abatement reasons that keeps them away from the military airspace).
Since Sept. 11, however, even commercial jets must fly wide of MacDill's airspace or above 1,600 feet when approaching TIA, according to MacDill officials.
"No one is allowed in except aircraft operated by the Defense Department, the military, medical facilities and law enforcement," said Sgt. Sonny Cohrs, a spokesman for MacDill. "Airliners are not allowed."
The restriction has not created any problems for aircraft at TIA.
"There is no operational problem at all in staying clear of MacDill's airspace," said Ed Cooley, senior director of public safety and operations at TIA. "The airlines routinely (stay above) MacDill's airspace when they're coming in to land to the north."
Although a small Cessna would not likely do much damage, even if it were to crash into a strategic area of the base, officials are now reviewing what additional defenses the base might need. There are no jet fighters based there, although stationing F-16s on site is one measure under consideration to beef up the base's defenses.
Had jet fighters been there when Bishop violated the airspace, they would have scrambled and intercepted him, though there is nothing to suggest that the outcome would have changed.
MacDill is equipped with .50-caliber machine guns. Had they been used on Bishop, the Cessna would have been destroyed.
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