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Flying high over the Super Bowl; CBP enforces TFR no-fly zone

Posted 4 years 306 days ago ago by Admin

It’s no surprise that U.S. Customs and Border Protection is involved in protecting our nation’s borders and rescuing people from natural disasters. Probably fewer people know that CBP’s varied duties also include enforcing Temporary Flight Restrictions at NFL Super Bowls and other major events.

While TFR enforcement duties are similar no matter what the national security special event – from a Republican National Convention to a NATO Conference – there’s nothing quite like the annual Super Bowl that attracts more than one million people to the game and related events throughout the week.

David Grantham, air interdiction agent for CBP’s Air and Marine Operations (AMO), had the responsibility to help enforce the TFR zone at this year’s Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta. “It’s a massive, massive undertaking,” Grantham said. “We want to make sure that everybody that comes to the Super Bowl event has a great time and, if we do our job, they’ll never even know we’re there. It’s like watching a really good NFL team. It looks so easy.”


Operation Noble Eagle and TFR history

The term “Temporary Flight Restriction” or TFR didn’t exist until shortly after 9/11 when it was coined under Operation Noble Eagle, one of three military operations launched in the wake of 9/11 alongside Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. The federal government has spent a total of about $10 billion on ONE over the years, estimated the Watson Institute at Brown University.

Post-9/11, pilots have the additional responsibility prior to flight to determine if there is a TFR along their intended route of flight. The list of TFRs is readily available on websites where pilots commonly check weather reports and file flight plans.

Pilots who neglect to review current TFRs and accidentally stray into the 30-mile-radius TFR no-fly zones without permission could be in for a big shock. The same goes for pilots who appear to be approaching the TFR zones. “Any general aviation pilot that looks out his window and sees just off his wingtip a Black Hawk, he knows he’s not having a very good day,” Grantham said. “We’ve done over 2,000 of these intercepts post-9/11.” 

Grantham related an amusing encounter when he was piloting a Cessna Citation jet intercepting a single-engine Cessna over Washington, D.C. just after 9/11 when the TFRs first went into place. After his copilot’s attempt at radio contact with the Cessna was unsuccessful, Grantham flew up within 20 feet of the smaller Cessna. It took a few minutes before the general aviation pilot finally looked to his left and saw the Citation. “He nearly jumped out of his seat,” Grantham related. His co-pilot gestured for the GA pilot to follow the Citation, and the GA pilot pointed to himself with a “Who me?” look on his face. “Like, who else do you think we’re looking at?” Grantham remembers thinking as he laughed out loud. “My co-pilot then pointed at his headset and held up an 18x24-inch sign showing a radio frequency for him to contact us, and he did. We followed him into a local airport and had a talk with him. He was a good guy who made a mistake."

CBP converges on Super Bowl LIII 

With roads often snarled in traffic jams on Super Bowl day, aerial resources are especially critical to law enforcement’s ability to respond quickly to emergencies. Grantham was part of the CBP AMO team of 62 personnel who helped enforce the TFR at this year’s Super Bowl in Atlanta. CBP AMO personnel came from Puerto Rico, Miami, Jacksonville, San Diego, New Orleans and D.C. headquarters to converge on the Air Security Operations Center at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta, Georgia.

“Any time we have one of these national events like this, it’s an all-hands-on-deck effort,” Grantham related. CBP doesn’t have a hard time finding personnel who want to participate in the largest U.S. sporting event of the year, even though few of them will catch even a glimpse of the game on a screen. “Everybody enjoys being part of something special like this,” Grantham said. CBP partnered with more than 50 other federal, state and local agencies to protect Atlanta Super Bowl fans.

Arriving with CBP AMO personnel at this year’s Super Bowl were 10 helicopters and two fixed-wing aircraft:

  • Six UH-60 Black Hawks, which fly up to 180 mph and 15,000 feet altitude, monitored the skies continuously about 40-50 miles outside of Atlanta, conducted ground surveillance, and stayed on alert for any calls to conduct an interdiction of a suspicious aircraft.
  • Four Airbus H125 helicopters (also known in North America as the AStar), flying at up to 150 mph and 12,000 feet, were there mostly for tactical support. They are equipped for day and night video surveillance, and they include a searchlight and a loudspeaker. “In order to serve CBP in their mission, we have worked hard to learn from previous years flying the earlier H120 and AS350 models,” Airbus Helicopters, Inc. President Chris Emerson noted. “The great thing is the newest variant, the H125, has so much more capability, including a digital cockpit which will ease the pilot workload, and will allow them to carry ballistic protection and more mission equipment.”
  • Two Beechcraft Super King Air 350s, which AMO calls “MEAs” for “Multi-Role Enforcement Aircraft,” fly at a maximum of 300 mph and 28,000 feet. They primarily moved people and equipment, although they also can conduct ground surveillance. Their FLIR thermal imaging cameras can pick up the heat from a human at 7,000 feet.

Each agency brings its own unique skills and assets to the Super Bowl, Grantham said. For instance, CBP is the only agency that provides powerful Black Hawks for this mission. CBP Air Crew Riflemen regularly operate in the back of the Black Hawk and AS350. “This provides a tremendous amount of safety and situational awareness to our law enforcement partners on the ground,” Grantham said.

Another valuable CBP asset is its airborne law enforcement camera equipment mounted on the Black Hawks, AS350s and other fixed-wing aircraft. They send real-time, high-definition video to ground personnel, providing a much higher level of situational awareness over large areas and enhancing officer safety, Grantham related.

CBP AMO currently has 1,636 personnel, 132 helicopters and 101 fixed-wing aircraft in all, said Christiana Coleman from the AMO Communications Team. “There’s no other law enforcement agency with these capabilities in the civilian world,” Grantham said. He has flown helicopters including the AStar when Hurricane Katrina hit home; he currently pilots a DHC-8 to patrol the Caribbean in search of marine traffic carrying illegal drugs. 

Training before the big game

Some of the Super Bowl preparations begin as soon as the last one is over. Francisco “Chi Chi” Rodriguez, director of the CBP’s New Orleans Air & Marine Branch, has been involved in this long-term planning twice. He served as the CBP AMO director on site during two Super Bowls, 2013 in New Orleans and 2017 in Houston. “There are meetings almost the whole year, so when it comes down to the last week, we know what we’re doing,” Rodriguez said.

Law enforcement and emergency personnel from a wide variety of agencies arrived in Atlanta on the Monday before the Sunday Super Bowl this year. They spent the next several days conducting various training exercises and scenarios to ensure all participating agencies and departments were operating in accordance with the Super Bowl Operations Plan. Participating agencies included Homeland Security, TSA, FAA, FBI, National Guard, state patrol, sheriff’s departments, city police and a variety of first responders. 

A strong foundation already was in place with operations plans, common familiarity with the Incident Command System organizational structure, and plenty of previous experience (especially CBP with its daily illegal drug-detection duties). However, there still is a need to train together. “Coordination is a big part of any type of national security special event,” Grantham said. For example, the numerous participants need to coordinate radio frequencies and ensure video and camera equipment is compatible.

Several local, state and federal law enforcement teams took advantage of the opportunity to practice their fast roping skills out of the back of the Black Hawks. CBP provided specially equipped aircraft and crewmembers for this training, Grantham related. These skills provide the quickest way to transport personnel (including K-9s) to the scene of an emergency during a high-traffic event when helicopters have no room to land. Grantham watched about 50 different rappellers each hover and drop 50 feet on the fast rope one afternoon before the Super Bowl. Over several days, he estimated that hundreds of individual fast-rope exercises took place. “They were just loving it,” he said, quickly adding, “It takes a lot of nerve to do that.”

While training on the Black Hawks is a kick, it also is an opportunity for CBP AMO partners to gain a better understanding of the challenge involved in landing a Black Hawk in a city. “Black Hawks put out hurricane-force wind,” Grantham said. “Porta potties within a couple 100 yards are gonna go flying.” So ground personnel need to secure objects within that perimeter, he said.

In another drill, Civil Air Patrol volunteers helped the CBP and DOD train for GA interdictions during Super Bowl week by providing a small Cessna “rabbit” to chase. “If there is an aircraft steering for the TFR, we’re going to identify it, we’re going to intercept it and we’re going to attempt to establish voice communications with it via radio,” Grantham said. “If that doesn’t work, we’re going to be flying right alongside this aircraft and we will literally be waving at them.” The CBP pilot may also hold up an 18x24-inch sign showing a radio frequency, asking the pilot to contact the CBP aircraft. 

In case the GA pilot is so startled by the sight of a Black Hawk flying just off his wing that he inadvertently turns his plane toward the CBP aircraft, CBP pilots are trained to fly slightly below and aft of the suspect aircraft to minimize any potential safety issues, Grantham said. If they establish radio contact, the CBP pilot asks the GA pilot to land at a nearby airport for a talk with law enforcement.

If folks on the ground haven’t picked up a transponder, or only minimal information is obtained, the CBP helicopter pilot transmits the suspect aircraft’s N-number to ground assets, who then attempt to quickly determine the aircraft’s owner and find out whether the pilot filed a proper flight plan with the FAA. If the GA pilot continues to ignore the CBP helicopter pilot’s commands, the government pilot has the option to contact the Department of Defense and turn the target over to an F-15 or F-16 fighter aircraft. CBP wants to steer unauthorized GA aircraft away from the TFR zone before they even enter it. Otherwise, the GA pilots face an investigation and probable 15-day license suspension.

When asked if he has ever seen a need to shoot down an aircraft, Grantham said, “No, CBP does not have the authority, capability or desire to do that. When conducting missions related to drug enforcement, we want to interview the pilot and any passengers to find out who they are working for. Besides, eventually they will run low on fuel and have to land anyway. We are law enforcement, not the military.”

Monitoring the skies on game day

The TFR no-fly zone for Super Bowl LIII was in effect from 3 p.m. until midnight on Sunday, Feb. 3, encompassing a 30-mile radius around Atlanta and a more restrictive 10-mile radius inside it. GA pilots could enter the outer zone if they had a reservation and were arriving/departing a local airport, filed a flight plan, used a transponder, and stayed in communication with ATC. DHS also reviewed the information.

Specialists from the CBP Air & Marine Operations Center (AMOC) in Riverside, California, partnered with local Atlanta FAA personnel to monitor the airspace encompassing the Super Bowl TFR and beyond. In the secure Airspace Security Operations Center in the Atlanta metropolitan area, they received live FAA air traffic control radar feeds to identify and sort the traffic. CBP focused on the smaller, slower aircraft. If an unauthorized GA aircraft appeared to be approaching the TFR, they would attempt to identify the owner/pilot and check for the aircraft’s flight plan. This information would then be relayed to the CBP aircraft patrolling nearby, which would respond accordingly.

Air security officials have something in common with TV fans who enjoy seeing NFL players pound each other in the mud and snow. The air security officials smile at bad weather on Super Bowl Sunday because it means less air traffic, Rodriguez related. “The worse it is, the better it is for airspace security,” said Rodriguez, who piloted AV-8B Harriers in the Marine Corps.

Unfortunately, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are less deterred by weather. CBP also has to watch out for UAVs violating the TFR during the Super Bowl, especially since amateur UAV enthusiasts are much more likely to be ignorant of TFR regulations. At Super Bowl LI in Houston, CBP sent out an AStar to intercept a small drone that could have caused serious problems if it hit another aircraft, Rodriguez recalled. “Yes, we’re getting incrementally more calls on these things,” Rodriguez confirmed. 

Both Grantham and Rodriguez said it’s incredibly rewarding to help protect Super Bowl fans. “It’s amazing how smoothly it goes off,” Grantham said. “It all gets down to the people – hardworking, dedicated people.”

And no, in case you’re wondering, these law officers who help protect our fun do not get free tickets to any of these games.

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