April 29, 2015
Statement of Michael Huerta, Administrator
Before the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee on “Flying Under the Radar: Securing Washington, D.C. Airspace”
Thank you, Chairman Chaffetz and Ranking Member Cummings, for the opportunity to appear before the Committee today.
I would like to address your questions about the recent gyrocopter incident by explaining the FAA’s role in airspace security and how we coordinate with other agencies.
First and foremost, the FAA’s mission is aircraft and airspace safety. We operate the nation’s air traffic control system to separate aircraft. Our primary focus is on getting aircraft safely to their destinations and managing the flow of thousands of aircraft and their passengers around the country every day.
In addition to the FAA’s safety mission, we also work very closely with the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security on a daily basis to support their aviation security missions, particularly here in the Capital Region. As part of that support, we provide them a raw air traffic radar feed so they have situational awareness of what is happening in our national airspace system.
To enable our controllers to safely control air traffic, the first thing we have to do is to distinguish the aircraft that are communicating with controllers from all of the other objects in the air that are not aircraft. These other objects that the radar detects could be things like vehicles on nearby roadways, flocks of birds, weather events, or occasional kites or balloons.
Air traffic controllers could not do their jobs if they had to work with an unfiltered radar feed. They would not be able to distinguish the aircraft they are charged with safely handling from the other elements on their radar scopes.
We require aircraft that fly in the airspace around Washington, D.C., and other large cities around the country, to use transponders that broadcast basic information such as the type of aircraft, speed, direction, and altitude. When the radar detects those aircraft, it picks up the transponder information and displays it on a controller’s radar screen. Controllers can then see all of the flights in a specific area, along with all of the identifying information for each aircraft.
Anything that doesn’t have a transponder shows up as an image resembling a simple small dot on the radar screen – and there are typically many of them across a controller’s radar screen.
To assist controllers in focusing on safely managing air traffic, we apply filters to the controllers’ radar to eliminate the vast majority of those small dots. Safely managing air traffic is a controller’s mission and they must be able to do that without distraction.
To support national and homeland security, the FAA shares a real-time, unfiltered radar feed with our partners in the Department of Defense and several other agencies. We do that so they have the same information we have – and, so they can apply the appropriate filters for their own mission to protect the airspace. We also embed technical air traffic staff at a number of North American Aerospace Defense Command facilities around the country to provide additional operational expertise and support.
On April 15, Mr. Hughes’ gyrocopter appeared on our radar as one of those small, unidentified elements, indistinguishable from all the other non-aircraft radar tracks. The National Capital Region Coordination Center called the FAA at 1:24 p.m. that afternoon, to alert us to the flight based on information they received from the Capitol Police.
After the incident, we conducted a forensic radar analysis and looked for an image that might match Mr. Hughes’ gyrocopter. We understood he had taken off from a small airport in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and we had an approximate time, so we looked at unfiltered radar data. A trained radar analyst identified a slow-moving image that traveled from Gettysburg toward the Capitol, and vanished from radar at about the time Mr. Hughes landed on the West Lawn. We now believe that unidentified radar element was Mr. Hughes’ gyrocopter. The dot appeared only intermittently throughout the flight.
When we got the call from the Capitol Police, we immediately notified our interagency partners on the Domestic Events Network, or DEN, a twenty-four hour, seven days a week communications line we operate to support a shared situational awareness among our interagency partners.
We initiated the DEN more than a decade ago to quickly share information about activity in the airspace with multiple agencies. The DEN now includes more than 130 federal and local agencies, as well as major FAA air traffic facilities around the country. The DEN has played a critical role in disseminating important operational information to other agencies as quickly as possible.
Each agency has a responsibility to announce an airspace incident on the DEN as soon as they know about it. Sharing information in real time is vital to ensure we’re all operating with the same basic facts and can respond according to our own specific mission requirements.
We are committed to our safety mission at the FAA, and we are dedicated to working closely with all of our airspace security partners to support protection of the airspace. We are assisting the Department of Homeland Security in its ongoing interagency review of this incident. This is in addition to our own internal review to ensure that FAA employees followed all the proper procedures and protocols during the event. If we need to make changes as a result of these efforts we will and I will keep the committee informed.
I would be happy to take your questions.