The FAA Didn't Know the Kings Were Flying
By Mac McClellan
September 1, 2010 — Pilots believe that because they have entered their name, address, phone number, the number of people on board and so on into an IFR flight plan that the FAA controllers have all of that information. That isn’t the way the FAA’s system works. So when local police, acting on an inaccurate tip from a group within the TSA that an airplane had been stolen, detained famous instructors John and Martha King last weekend, the FAA and controllers didn’t know who was flying the airplane - even though it was on an IFR clearance.
When a flight plan goes into the FAA system, only the most basic information, such as departure and destination, requested route and altitude, and the N-number and type of airplane, is entered for the controllers to see. That’s why when there is an emergency, or a diversion, the controller always asks for the number of souls onboard and fuel. You entered that information into your flight plan, but it didn’t go into the FAA’s air traffic system.
The Kings used the popular FltPlan.com online flight planning service to make the flight plan for their trip and to file the plan with the FAA. A majority of pilots who fly IFR for business or purposeful travel use FltPlan.com for its accuracy and convenience, and because it’s free - thanks to advertiser support.
Even though the FAA’s computers do not accept or store the complete information in a flight plan, the flight plan provider does have that data available. No matter how you file the plan, including using the FAA-funded DUAT system, the complete flight plan does not reach the FAA, but does remain available in case it is needed.
If the local police or EPIC (El Paso Intelligence Center), the agency that had suspected the Kings of flying a stolen airplane last weekend, had checked with the FAA first to see who had filed the flight plan—which they probably did not—the FAA would not have known immediately. But the FAA could have quickly checked with just a few sources such as FltPlan.com or DUAT and learned that it was in fact the Kings, known their home base and phone number, and reacted differently in the situation.
At first blush it may seem to make sense that the FAA’s air traffic control system should store all of the information a pilot puts into a flight plan. But if you think about that for a moment, you realize that the computer system would be burdened by a huge amount of data that is not needed or even helpful on 99.9 percent or more of all flights which are routine. In the rare circumstance such as this one, the FAA can check with the very small number of companies authorized to file flight plans and recover the necessary information.
It is unacceptable to general aviation pilots that the TSA and all of law enforcement continue to treat us as though we are threats to national security despite all evidence to the contrary. But in the case of the Kings being falsely accused of flying a stolen airplane, another hole in the system has been highlighted. While it appears that the FAA knows everything about the pilot flying IFR, it turns out it knows almost nothing. General aviation needs to work together to remind the FAA of this situation, and to educate law enforcement on how to find the detailed information about a flight to prevent an unwarranted and potentially dangerous over-reaction such as happened to the Kings when they were met by police officers with guns drawn.