To the Nth Degree

May 8, 2003
Post-9/11, a private strip’s experience with security offers a unique perspective

FT. WASHINGTON, MD — Few in aviation came under the microscope more after 9/11 than Dave Wartofsky and his private strip, Potomac Airfield, located some ten miles from downtown Washington, D.C. It took several months before the Secret Service and TSA would allow any flying activity at Potomac, and the procedures put in place offer an example of just how stringent requirements could become, or perhaps some insights into where some future answers may lie.

Potomac Airfield is one of the airports that many have come to call the DC-3, along with College Park and Hyde Field, also in Maryland. Because of their proximity to D.C., they were closed for much longer periods than other U.S. airports after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. They were allowed to reopen [Feb. ‘02] only after very strict identification procedures for pilots were put into place.

Of the DC- 3 airports, Potomac is unique for two reasons: It is located about halfway between Washington Reagan National and Andrews AFB, meaning it already had intimidating air traffic procedures; and, it has as customers many military and intelligence officials who base their aircraft here. While that fact didn’t directly help get the airfield reopened, says Wartofsky, it did help him with a plan of attack.

“I used to think that about 50 percent of the people who fly out of here had top secret security clearances, but as we got into this I kept raising that estimate to where it’s more like 98 percent,” explains the 44-year old Wartofsky. “Because of the contacts here, I was able to put together a management team of sorts appropriate to the task.”

Instead of joining the industry chorus clamoring for all-out relief from security interests regulating aviation post-9/11, Wartofsky used his unique contacts to work more one-onone by getting access and by formulating an argument that might be more clearly heard.

“You had security people, whether FAA, Secret Service, DOT, whatever, in a state of being overwhelmed. My approach was, instead of taking it to the ideal end point which was so far over the horizon on 9/12/01, to try and take it one step at a time in the right direction.

“Coming from the darkest corners of the room, it meant that one could be listened to and manage to get things done.”


Asks Wartofsky, “What can you do to preserve the freedom for those that are willing to identify themselves? What can you do to make it real hard for the bad guy? What can you do that is sensible?”

For pilots at Potomac, which is today only used by based customers, the answer is a dynamic identification procedure that uniquely IDs who they are to air traffic control each time they fly. “Once you can identify someone as friend, it becomes easier to identify a foe,” says Wartofsky.

Pilots must go through a heavy security clearance before being allowed to fly out of Potomac. Then, each time the pilot flies he or she is given a unique clearance for that trip, with ATC the only other party that knows the clearance. “If you can’t present that identification appropriately,” says Wartofsky, “you get to see Blackhawks and F-16s.”

While maybe not the answer for all GA pilots, he says it does offer some insights into how general aviation interests can approach the security challenge.

“On 9/11, there was a police car parked in the middle of our runway. I pointed out that 98 percent of the aircraft can take off on half the runway, the taxiway, or the grass. Or a bad guy can take off from an unattended grass field a half mile down the road. So, for lighter aircraft, you gain little by trying to secure facilities on the ground.

“The only thing you can rationally do is to have a means of detecting anything that enters the airspace from the ground.”