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Electrical Failure And Loss Of GPS Leads To Washington DC Airspace Violation


Violating airspace, especially around Washington DC, is bad news. What would you do to avoid this situation?

NASA ASRS Report: Washington DC Airspace Violation

The following report was filed in November of 2019 when a Vans RV-8 experienced a temporary electrical failure. Here's what happened...

Approaching DC SFRA I experienced intermittent electrical failure. During this time, GPS Navigation devices were inop. I restored power; however, comms were unreliable. I attempted to contact Potomac Approach on 132.77, but was unsuccessful. During this time I inadvertently entered the DC SFRA for a few seconds.

After exiting, Potomac Approach contacted me and informed me that I had entered the SFRA and gave me a phone number to call on the ground. In the cockpit, distractions were the cause of the unintentional flight into the airspace. I should've been more aware of my position in relation to the SFRA and turned away from the airspace right away.

60 NM: FAR 91.161 Training Required

Under FAR 91.161, any pilot flying within 60NM of the DCA VOR/DME must have completed Special Awareness Training for the Washington, DC Metropolitan Area. This area is marked in a large white circle on your sectional chart and is a marked with a notice: "Special awareness training required within 60 NM of DCA VOR DME."

30 NM: Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA)

Within 30 NM, and up to but not including FL180 of the DCA VOR/DME, numerous special procedures commence, including unique flight plan and SQUAWK code assignments. Furthermore, pilots are cleared through "gates" in this 30NM ring to access airports close to Washington DC. This airspace exists for national security purposes, and ATC takes the boundaries very seriously.


13-15 NM: Flight Restricted Zone (FRZ)

Inside the SFRA, you'll find the FRZ, or "Flight Restricted Zone." It's pretty hard to mess this one up and not know about it. If you've managed to slip through the DC SFRA unnoticed and begin to approach the DC FRZ, you should expect to be intercepted quickly. The flight restricted zone is 13-15 miles wide and extends up to 18,000 feet. The only flights allowed into the FRZ are individually and specially authorized by ATC and the military. Many flights into this area require onboard air marshals.


How You Can Avoid The Same Mistake

Whether it's an SFRA, or Class B, C, or D airspace, there are a few easy things you can do to avoid similar mistakes. First, fly the airplane using visual checkpoints to identify airspace boundaries. In the report above, the pilot could have initiated a turn away from the airspace immediately, but they were distracted by the electrical malfunction.

Second, have a backup form of navigation quickly available in the cockpit. That might be a paper sectional chart, or better yet an EFB with ForeFlight installed. ForeFlight's "profile view" is powerful; it combines terrain, obstacles, and airspace along your route into a single profile view. It enhances your situational awareness, giving you a quick way to double-check that your altitude and route won't interfere with tower controlled or restricted airspace.

Airspace depicted is from the start to the end of your route, left to right. And if you want to get a closer look at complicated airspace, you can zoom in within the profile view to see more detail.


Third, pick up flight following with ATC in busy airspace. Having a controller one click of the mic away is a valuable resource, especially if you're picking through airspace corridors.

The call to ATC is simple. You let them know who you are, where you are, and what you want: flight following. When you've picked up flight following, ATC helps you out with traffic, weather, and airspace avoidance. ATC can help find routes that will keep you clear of heavy traffic. They can also warn you of traffic that's approaching your flight path. Navigation is still up to you, and you don't have to accept ATC's advice as long as you stay in Class E or G airspace. But following their advice can be a big asset.

Have you experienced a navigation failure? How did you manage the situation? Tell us in the comments below.

Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, certified flight instructor, and an Embraer 145 First Officer for a regional airline. He graduated as an aviation major from the University of North Dakota in 2018, holds a PIC Type Rating for Cessna Citation Jets (CE-525), and is a former pilot for Mokulele Airlines. He's the author of articles, quizzes and lists on Boldmethod every week. You can reach Swayne at, and follow his flying adventures on his YouTube Channel.

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