You’re sitting around after having finished some ground instruction with your student. Your flight school also contracts out to local news agencies for photo flights. One station’s photographer shows up to the office, needing to launch for photos of an active search scene. You do a logged, pre-flight briefing via the CSRA Direct User Access Terminal Service (DUATS), with no Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) established in the area published in the Notices to Airmen (NOTAM) section. You met the requirements of 14 CFR 91.103. You push start. Your estimated time enroute is 30 minutes.
Upon arrival, you notice another helicopter higher up, hard to identify, also orbiting. The aircraft doesn’t respond to radio calls on the Helicopter Air-to-Air Frequency (123.025MHz) nor the closest airport’s Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF). A few minutes into the orbit over the scene, the station contacts the photographer and passes on that the police called and said you are violating a TFR.
Smartly, you depart the area immediately. After landing, you check for updated NOTAMs via DUATS and, sure enough, you find a TFR for the area published around the time you arrived on the scene.
You couldn’t reasonably be responsible for busting that TFR since the flight was properly briefed—showing no TFRs at the scene—and communications were attempted on reasonable frequencies at the scene despite no requirement to do so. They published this TFR at your arrival, not before, so you simply could not have known about it.
The reality is that this scenario happens occasionally to photo/news operators throughout the United States when emergency TFRs are posted, since there is never any advance notice for such given the nature of the event. However, of interest to you was that the aviation app you used while enroute never showed the new TFR even up to several minutes past the point of landing to verify, despite having an approved data connection.
Why Didn’t The TFR Display On The App When Published?
Aviation apps such as ForeFlight and Garmin Pilot are great tools for pilots. You can access tons of quality information about your flight and display it in meaningful ways to enhance your situational awareness and cockpit organization. Obviously you can’t rely solely on these apps for critical information, and the developers don’t say that you can anyway. But many pilots just check these apps and go fly, thinking they are completely covered for pre-flight planning. They ignore going directly to the published sources for flight information, such as DUATS and Lockheed Martin Flight Services, or getting a full briefing.
I love ForeFlight and have used it for many years now. According to ForeFlight’s website, they download TFR data every 15 minutes from the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) servers, and then push it to the app with a data connection.1 So, in this article’s scenario, the app wouldn’t have displayed the TFR for, at most, 15 minutes from when it was published as a NOTAM.
Another popular aviation app, Garmin Pilot, indicates that it updates the TFR database when connected per the user manual, but does not say how often it checks.2 It is doubtful that it is checking every minute, so, again, even with this app you should still be verifying TFRs through the official sources.
For flights similar to this scenario, it would be nice to have this TFR information pushed to devices instantly as published, as pilots would be able to see the TFR populate over their destination or position at arrival and vacate early.
ForeFlight, Garmin Pilot, and similar apps are outstanding advances of technology that improve pilot situational awareness in the cockpit. As a preflight tool, they are equally advantageous, but we must be aware of how they work—not just for TFRs—and make adjustments to our planning process to ensure complete compliance with aviation regulations and ensure that we truly have the latest information.
Entering auto, now,
- ForeFlight. (2016). How often do your check with the FAA for new TFRs? Retrieved December 25, 2016 from http://foreflight.com/support/faqs/search/?q=tfr
- Garmin. (October 2016). Garmin Pilot for iOS. Retrieved December 25, 2016 from http://static.garmin.com/pumac/190-01501-00_T.pdf