The U.S. military will begin using an elaborate network of cameras and lasers next month to scan the sky over Washington and flash colored warning beams at aircraft that enter the nation's most restricted metropolitan airspace.
About a dozen high-powered cameras at unidentified locations will be able to zoom in on an airplane anywhere in the restricted airspace, which covers a 30 mile radius around each of the Washington area's three major airports. Red and green laser beams attached to the cameras will then warn the aircraft to leave the area.
The beams -- stronger than a laser pointer, but more diffuse -- will be visible from the cockpit day or night.
(Photos Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
The new warning system will allow North American Aerospace Defense Command officials to constantly scan the area from facilities thousands of miles away, using radars and the infrared cameras with 360-degree capability. Local pilots said they supported the effort but were concerned that many pilots would not be able to understand what the laser beams mean unless the government launches an intensive education effort.
Military officials hope the $500,000 system will prevent the kind of scare that occurred last year, when a plane carrying the governor of Kentucky sparked an evacuation of the Capitol after its transponder failed to work. They also hope to reduce the number of daily breaches of the airspace, which have resulted in hundreds of pilots temporarily losing their licenses. Pilots who fail to heed the new signals could be shot down by fighter jets.
"I believe [the new system] will help keep people from getting into harm's way," said Rick Hostetler, project manager of special operations at the Federal Aviation Administration.
The system would improve on today's method for patrolling the region, which relies on FAA and military air traffic controllers scanning the sky with radar that identifies the location of aircraft. If controllers can't identify or contact an aircraft in Washington's Air Defense Identification Zone, the plane is intercepted by Coast Guard Jayhawk helicopters and Air Force fighter jets, which sometimes drop flares to get the pilot's attention.
Lt. Col. Bob Hehemann of NORAD said the flare system has not always been effective. "We determined that at times, pilots of these planes were unaware they had a fighter on their left wing," Hehemann said. After flares were dropped, some pilots still did not get it. "We interviewed one pilot . . . he thought it was an impressive light show."
Pilots can see the beams day or night. People on the ground, however, cannot see them during the day, and only occasionally at night.
Unlike pointers and other eye-damaging lasers that have raised safety concerns among pilots, the military's beams are low-intensity and safe enough for the eyes yet distinctive enough to alert pilots that something's wrong, officials say. From government building rooftops, the lasers will pinpoint an aircraft from 20 miles away and flash a quick red-red-green sequence repeatedly. The cameras will be overseen by NORAD officials from multiple locations, including Colorado Springs; Cheyenne, Wyo.; and the Washington area. NORAD operators will activate the laser beams if a pilot does not respond to radio contact or an aircraft intercept.
Researchers who developed the technology say the laser beam is so narrowly targeted that other nearby aircraft will not be able to see it. Curtis Davis, a researcher at MIT Lincoln Laboratory who helped develop the system, said the beam is stronger than a laser pointer, but more diffuse. "We've taken the size of the beam and made it 15,000 times bigger," Davis said. "It's a foot in diameter."
Local pilots and aviation groups who were once concerned about the safety of lasers said they are convinced that the military's system is safe, but they now worry whether all pilots will know what to do once they see them.
The FAA plans to issue a notice to pilots, which is required reading before flying, saying that if they see the laser beams they should contact air traffic control immediately and turn their aircraft away from the direction of the beam. NORAD and FAA also plan to hold a series of briefings with local pilots and rely on aviation organizations with wide pilot memberships to spread the word on the new procedure.
"If you didn't know what it meant, you wouldn't know what to do," said Melissa K. Rudinger, vice president of regulatory affairs at Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which represents 400,000 pilots, many of whom fly for recreation. The organization estimates there are about 550,000 non-commercial or non-military pilots in the country. "It's important to get the education out as wide as you can, not just in this region."
Charles Mayer, a local pilot who has inadvertently violated the air space, got an early glimpse of the system on Thursday, when the FAA and NORAD took journalists and a few pilots up in helicopters over Prince George's County for a demonstration of the beams, which appeared to emanate from a building located between the Washington Monument and the Capitol.
"I'm glad they are trying to find ways to keep the airspace open and to keep us safe, but a lot of pilots I know are really suspicious of this," said Mayer, who serves as secretary of TSS Flying Club in Gaithersburg. "I hope I never see it again. "