In another sign of increasing government secrecy, the Federal Aviation Administration has removed from its Web site the transcript of a heated public hearing during which pilots ridiculed no-fly zones that have surrounded Washington since 9/11.
The FAA action came at the written request of Air Force Maj. Gen. M. Scott Mayes, who is in charge of air defense for the mainland United States and asked for a review of the transcript to ensure that no sensitive information had been disclosed about how air security works around Washington’s government core.
“How ridiculous can you get?” said Phil Boyer, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which has more than 400,000 members. The group has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for a complete transcript of the January session and wants the FAA to restore the text to its Internet site.
“Do they honestly believe security information was disclosed during the public meetings?” he asked.
Among other comments during the January public hearing, one pilot said that smaller planes could veer off the approved flight path into Washington’s airports and hit a building before the Air Force could respond.
Michael Kucharek, a spokesman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command, said it’s possible that sensitive information was discussed at the session, and that’s why Mayes has asked for a review of what was disclosed.
“Some say yes. Some say no. That’s why we need a review of the information,” he said. He said he knew of one other case where transcripts of public sessions were reviewed by the military, involving details given out at a public meeting of how the Pave Paws air-defense radar system in Cape Cod operates.
Kucharek said he did not know how long the review process would take.
Steven Aftergood, an analyst for the Federation of American Scientists who publishes the column “Secrecy News,” said he thought the Air Force action was “rare if not unprecedented.”
But he sympathized with the Air Force reaction. “I can understand the impulse behind it,” Aftergood said. He said it’s easy to imagine government officials taken back by the release of information they believe should not be a matter of public discussion, who would then “seek to err on the side of caution by retrieving it.”
Still, Aftergood said this isn’t a realistic option because the information given in public hearings is already in the public domain.
Although the FAA removed the transcripts from its Web site, versions of the January session are still circulating on the Internet. The meeting was held to discuss FAA rules on an Air Defense Identification Zone around Washington that restricts the paths of planes flying through a 40-mile zone around Washington and excludes general aircraft.
The federal government has received more than 21,000 comments opposing the FAA restrictions, and the Air Pilots Association says it fears that restrictions on the flight paths of general aircraft will be imposed for other cities if the Washington plan becomes an official rule.
At the session, the private pilots ridiculed the new rules, contending that small planes are too light to do much damage if they hit buildings. A typical aircraft used in general aviation weighs 2,000 pounds and travels at about 140 mph with up to 90 gallons, unlike the 255,000-pound commercial aircraft fully equipped with almost 12,000 gallons of fuel that were flown into New York’s World Trade Towers on 9/11.
One of the pilots, who also flies military F-18 Hornets, pointed out that it took the Air Force 30 minutes to respond last year when a small private plane traveling at less than 60 mph violated the Washington area’s airspace last year.
A commercial jetliner traveling at 450 mph could violate the 40-mile zone and hit its target before the Air Force could respond, and pilots of smaller planes could just as easily follow the approved flight path into Washington’s airports, and then veer off in the last five minutes to hit a building before the Air Force could respond, if that was their intent, he said.
The pilot said a terrorist could cause more damage with a car or truck bomb, which can be packed with heavier loads that small aircraft. Small aircraft can only carry 500 pounds, including the weight of passengers.
Chris Dancy, a spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, said no real secrets were disclosed.
“I didn’t hear anything that I as a private pilot did not know,” he said.
(Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)SHNS.com.)