Last week we looked at some of the first-order questions about flying superheroes. Specifically, we examined whether it would be safe to have such people in the air at all (probably) and the registration requirements as they apply to various characters (Superman is probably okay, but Batman is going to have trouble here.).
This week, we’re looking at some of the legal mechanics involved in actually flying. Specifically, the issues of flight planning and dealing with air traffic control.
I. Flight Routes
There are a veritable host of regulations that apply to actually flying an aircraft, but the most important ones are perhaps the most intuitive. In essence, flying anywhere but where you have told air traffic control (ATC) that you’re going is illegal.
14 C.F.R. § 91.153 requires every pilot operating an aircraft under visual flight rules (VFR), i.e. flying in good weather, to provide the following information in a flight plan submitted to ATC unless otherwise authorized:
(1) The aircraft identification number and, if necessary, its radio call sign.
(2) The type of the aircraft or, in the case of a formation flight, the type of each aircraft and the number of aircraft in the formation.
(3) The full name and address of the pilot in command or, in the case of a formation flight, the formation commander.
(4) The point and proposed time of departure.
(5) The proposed route, cruising altitude (or flight level), and true airspeed at that altitude.
(6) The point of first intended landing and the estimated elapsed time until over that point.
(7) The amount of fuel on board (in hours).
(8) The number of persons in the aircraft, except where that information is otherwise readily available to the FAA.
(9) Any other information the pilot in command or ATC believes is necessary for ATC purposes.
Unless otherwise authorized by [air traffic control], no person may operate an aircraft within controlled airspace under IFR except as follows:
(a) On an air traffic service route, along the centerline of that airway.
(b) On any other route, along the direct course between the navigational aids or fixes defining that route. However, this section does not prohibit maneuvering the aircraft to pass well clear of other air traffic or the maneuvering of the aircraft in VFR conditions to clear the intended flight path both before and during climb or descent.
So basically, every pilot is required to tell ATC exactly where they’re going and is forbidden from deviating from that course except at the direction of ATC. Filing flight plans takes time, which means that Batman launching the Batcopter at the spur of the moment constitutes a violation of just about every FAA regulation on the books (there are tons of pre-flight checks required by law in addition to filing flight plans). And that would be true even if he were simply commuting from Wayne Manor down to Wayne Enterprises instead of doing things which would give most civil aviation regulators a heart attack.
Now there is a potential real-life example here: air medicine involves taking off with little or no notice and heading for random locations on a regular basis. But the “regular basis” is what makes this doable. Local ATC knows which hospitals have air ambulances and can plan around them, and all of the flight operations regulations include “unless otherwise instructed by ATC” exceptions, permitting local controllers to route planes around air ambulances as needed. Air ambulances also comply with all the rest of the FAA regulations. This does suggest that a superhero who is willing to coordinate with the FAA could be accommodated without too much trouble, but at the very least the superhero would have to tell the FAA where he or she takes off from.
Note that again, characters that are capable of flying under their own power are probably outside the FAA’s jurisdiction, which includes filing flight plans and following the direction of ATC. Superman can basically do whatever here, but characters that rely on “contrivances” for flight are bound by FAA regulations.
II. Air Traffic Control
The other main issue here is that if a character decides they don’t want to comply with FAA regulations, they still share the same airspace as everyone else. The entire United States is pretty much blanketed by air traffic control towers, so unless our characters have some way of completely avoiding radar–which many do but which would make their flights more dangerous–they’re going to be spotted. The ATC system keeps track of every aircraft currently in the sky in real time. You can actually access essentially live ATC feeds here. And since everyone else is complying with the law, and the military lets the FAA know where its planes are under most circumstances, random aircraft popping up in southern New York State are liable to be noticed. Like, immediately.
This is a bad thing for our heroes, particularly in light of recent-ish events. Fighters are scrambled if a known flight loses radio contact or deviates from its flight plan, so an entirely unknown craft could provoke military involvement pretty quickly. For those characters that do rely on some sort of craft to fly, pissing off the military is inadvisable. Yes, it may seem silly to send fighters after a superhero, but supervillains have planes, too, and radar can’t easily tell the difference, so a “scramble fighters first, ask questions later” policy makes sense.
There appear to be two main solutions to this. The first is to simply comply with the law and file your damn flight plans. But this seems a problematic solution, particularly for a character that wants to maintain a secret or otherwise hidden identity. Aircraft and pilot registration records are public records, and it would not do for one’s arch-nemesis to simply be able to do a little FOIA work and come up with your name and address. The second is to come to some kind of arrangement with the government for an exception to the rules. This seems quite plausible actually, as most superhero characters appear to be working in the public interest if not actually for the government directly. But as with all arrangements with the government, one risks running afoul of the state actor issue and its related liabilities.
Again, flying is a lot more complicated than simply heading off into the Wild Blue Yonder. Complying with air traffic control is likely the easiest option, though it does require a certain amount of transparency about superhero operations some characters may find burdensome. But that burden may be worth bearing if it means avoiding tangling with the Air Force on a regular basis.