Warplanes Over Washington

You want to fly where? It’s not easy getting approval to fly bombers and fighters in the restricted airspace over Washington, D.C.

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A T-6 flies over Washington D.C. last October. Expect many more warbirds on May 8.

How do you get 50 of the fiercest combat aircraft ever built to fly through the restricted airspace over the National Mall in Washington, D.C.? Ask Mike Ginter, a North American T-6 pilot and former Naval aviator who led the way through what he calls the “wild maze of bureaucracy” to secure approvals for next week’s Arsenal of Democracy flyover to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Ginter, who keeps his 1943 Navy trainer at the Culpeper Regional Airport—from where most of the trainers and fighters in the flyover will take off on May 8—had to get one waiver for the formation to fly within a 10-mile radius of Washington Reagan National Airport, which has been a restricted zone since 9/11, and another to fly inside an area known as P (for “prohibited”) 56. The only aircraft allowed to fly within P-56 (areas surrounding the White House and the vice president’s residence) are specially authorized flights supporting the U.S. Secret Service, the Office of the President, or one of several government agencies with missions requiring air support within the space. This restriction has been in effect for about 50 years.

Last October, while organizing a flight of 30 T-6s over Arlington National Cemetery and the Pentagon in conjunction with the non-profit Disabled Veterans of America, Ginter says he found the one person in the federal government who coordinates these special flying events: the FAA’s James “JJ” Johnston. “He’s a superstar. He is the center of the wagon wheel at the FAA, and he’s the guy who knows every person at all the other agencies” whose blessings are required for a flight like this: the National Park Service, the Transportation Security Administration, the Secret Service, the U.S. Capitol Police, and the FAA. The Secret Service and the TSA have different jurisdictions. The Secret Service is all about P-56, but doesn’t touch the restricted zone around the airport; the TSA is all over the airport restricted zone and doesn’t care about P-56. Both agencies require the same information, but—this is the federal government—in different formats and on different forms.

For the D.C. flyover, “I had to get 256 names and social security numbers and passport numbers, dates of birth, places of birth,” says Ginter. “Over the last four months my wife and I have been burning up the fax machine in our dining room, which has become planning central.”

Besides submitting forms for waivers, Ginter had to assure the different agencies that toes would not be stepped on. The Secret Service, he says, was involved in the planning from the start, and formed a focus group of all agencies involved. The group decided on a flight path that would avoid flying over Congressional office buildings, and Ginter arranged for a Secret Service agent to fly along on a practice flight. Last March, Jim Cook, who will lead the T-6 formation on May 8, flew the route in his Beechcraft Baron with Ginter, flyover Air Boss Wayne Boggs, and a secret service agent as passengers.  “We could easily see a way to fly the route without flying over the Capitol,” says Ginter, “and we got our eyes on the route and could check the timing.”

The National Park Service was worried that the noise and vibration from the radial engines in aircraft flying at 1,000 feet would damage the monuments on the Mall. Ginter’s answer: “We share your concern.” Then he went to work. “A buddy connected me with the people who do noise analysis of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter at air bases. They pulled out the FAA database and looked at the noise file for big radial-engine airplanes—four-engine airplanes—and found the data for 1,000-foot flybys.” The threshold for damage to old structures made of wood and glass is 130 decibels. For marble it’s even higher. “We were able to show that our noise limit would be 90 decibels,” Ginter says.

Among the special arrangements worked out by Johnston, the FAA’s manager of the National Capital Region Coordination Center, is the suspension of air traffic at Washington’s Reagan National Airport for about an hour coinciding with the flyover, which begins at 12:10. It’s uncommon but not unprecedented to stop activity at the airport for that length of time, says Johnston, who notes that the airport was closed to traffic for about the same period on April 17, 2012, when the space shuttle Discovery rode around the Mall atop a 747. “The FAA command center has been briefing the user community [and] the airlines for several months,” he says. “We have to balance the needs of the public and the public good.  This is so historic and so unique that we felt with the proper coordination that the flying community would understand. When people realize that this is one of the last times we’ll be able to get so many [World War II veterans] together and so many of the aircraft from that period together, they’ll understand that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Johnston adds that almost weekly, airport operations are suspended for about 10 minutes to allow for flyovers of Arlington National Cemetery during military burials. Johnston also got input from air traffic facilities to schedule the flyover at a time that would cause the least impact on the traveling public. “We were very careful to pick the time that would represent the slowest traffic period,” he says.

And who gets to work the tower that day, which will arguably be the best seat in the house? “We picked some seasoned veterans who have a lot of good experience, and they’ve been involved in the planning process from the very beginning,” says Johnston. The main qualification? Longevity.

Ginter says that almost every representative of the federal government “was completely behind this,” and what little resistance the executive committee met was overcome by the attitude he and the other volunteers adopted from the start: “The answer’s yes. What’s the question?”

He has one more restriction to get through: “I’m praying for good weather,” he says. The pilots need a sky with overcast no lower than 2,000 feet and five miles visibility. If those minimums are exceeded, then the flyover will have to wait for Saturday, May 9. And the weather gods don’t have a fax machine.

Boeing B-29 FIFI

The CAF found its Superfortress, one of only two airworthy B-29s, in 1971 at a Navy weapons test center in California, where it had been used as a gunnery target. According to Mark Watt’s Warbird Depot, a CAF maintenance team with an army of volunteers restored the airplane to flying condition in nine weeks, then gassed it up and flew it 1,250 miles to CAF Headquarters, then in Harlingen, Texas. It was named FIFI in honor of the wife of a veteran who helped develop the B-29 during the war and who financed the restoration. After the flyover in Washington, D.C., FIFI will offer rides on a 26-city tour.

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