Superheroes and Flying II: Flight Plans and Air Traffic Control

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.

The procedure for flying in poor conditions where one must rely upon one’s instruments, i.e. under instrument flight rules, are even more stringent. 14 C.F.R. § 91.181 reads as follows:

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.

III. Conclusion

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.

22 Responses to Superheroes and Flying II: Flight Plans and Air Traffic Control

  1. Interesting – the film Iron Man shows this a at least once, although he’s outside of U.S. territory over Afghanistan, and I’m guessing that that’s a pretty good example of what would happen over U.S soil as well.

  2. All of this also leaves some interesting plotline possibilities. An administration hostile to superheroes could potentially dictate a change in FAA regulations to cover all flight within its borders, whether by contrivance or not.

    Of course, the number of nuisance lawsuits over sparrows and eagles brought by superheroic allies could potentially make this a less-than-productive course of action.

  3. The FAA seems to disagree with you.
    From FAA form 7233-1 (PDF):

    CIVIL AIRCRAFT PILOTS [...] Filing of a VFR flight plan is recommended as a good operating practice.

    And later:

    Filing a Visual Flight Rules flight plan is recommended but not mandatory

    I’m fairly sure that most superheroes (and villains for that matter) would be considered “civil aircraft pilots” (specifically “general avaiation”), so (according to the FAA’s own rules) would not be required to file a flight plan for VFR flights.

    I pulled this information directly off the FAA website, so I’m assuming it reflects current law & regulations, but it may be out of date.

    • You raise a good point, but I’m not so sure about the civil aircraft pilot designation. Many superhero aircraft come equipped with weapons, which I imagine are disallowed on civil aircraft. Even those that lack offensive weapons have other features like stealth capabilities and the ability to break the sound barrier that probably exceed what civil aircraft are allowed to do. Breaking the sound barrier over land, for example, is not allowed for civil aircraft.

      • According to USLegal.com:

        The term civil aircraft and related articles means–

        (A) all aircraft other than aircraft to be purchased for use by the Department of Defense or the United States Coast Guard;

        Sections B-D include parts thereof and ground simulators.

      • Yes, something like the Batwing or Blackbird would be a civil aircraft if it could be approved in the first place, but I strongly doubt that they could. Beyond the inherent problems with things like stealth technology and onboard weapons, any modification to a registered aircraft would require getting a Supplemental Type Certificate for each modification, and those are a giant pain to get.

        I suspect such aircraft are either cleared through the military (likely in the case of the Batwing) or are simply operated illegally but secretly (likely in the case of the Blackbird).

    • I think what you’re getting at is the distinction between “general aviation and commercial aviation, both of which constitute “civil” aviation. The former category is basically non-commercial small aircraft while the latter is airlines and cargo flights.

      It’s possible that superheroes could fall into the general aviation category, but I’m not sure it helps them much. General aviators are just as strongly subject to the jurisdiction of ATC as anyone else.

  4. I know that ultra-lights are subject to different regulations, though I don’t know the details. The Whirly-Bat most definitely falls into the “ultra-light” category.

  5. A MythBusters episode “Jet Pack (June 9, 2005)” looked at single person flight devices (specifically a backpack consisting of two ducted propellers run by a lawn-mower engine) and included a segment with FAA inspectors that stated that such devices (including ultra-lights) do NOT require any sort of air-worthiness certificate or inspection. If I remember right if it was under some given weight & power limits and didn’t allow for passengers then anything goes.

    • Yes, but anything robust enough to be of interest to a superhero would almost certainly exceed those limits, particularly on the “power” side. A lawnmower engine powering a pair of propeller blades isn’t going to take you anywhere particularly interesting, nor in any particular hurry.

      That being said, there are a number of characters that glide with some frequency, Batman included. The FAA doesn’t seem to have much in the way of jurisdiction over unpowered flight, so such devices are pretty much unregulated.

  6. What about a Gree Lantern ring? Given the right bearer, it can be the most powerful thing in the universe, but it definitely falls under the weight restrictions for an ultra light, and it’s not exactly a vehicle.

    • There’s more than just weight restrictions to an ultra-light. There are also, among other things, speed limits, which the bearer of a Green Lantern ring could easily exceed. And although it may not be a vehicle, it’s still arguably a “contrivance…used..to fly in the air.”

  7. Time to get my nerd on!

    Ok Both Justice league(DC) and Avengers(Marvel) would class as para-military institutions, they are also Federally Government and UN approved they also have federal liaisons, thus their members aircraft/contrivances would either have had some form of inspection or blanket approval.

    Wayne industries built the Batwing and they have all sorts of military contracts and would know how to pass any inspections.
    Stark industries builds all the Avengers stuff and is in the same boat as Wayne industries.
    Half the X-men are reserve Avengers so would be covered by their legal team. Anyway Professor X can just tell them that “This is not the Blackbird your looking for “=p
    The Avengers do mention a few times about flight plans but this is done in a similar way as any military org.

    jm2c

    Liam

  8. Let’s add a bit more to this…say high altitude/sub-space flights or even higher. What regulations would these fall under? Superman, as we’ve seen, can get into space by himself.

    • The FAA’s jurisdiction is limited to atmospheric flight, but anything that gets into space has to go through the atmosphere at some point. True extra-atmospheric flight isn’t really regulated all that much. International treaties more than anything else, and those are pretty thin. Basically, if someone wants to do something in space, there isn’t much to say they can’t.

  9. Batman would generally only make short flights into Gotham City. So there would be no point scrambling F-18′s or F-16′s or whatever is available, Batman would probably have completed his flight by the time the jets have reached altitude.

    He obviously isn’t going to register the plane. I see no problem with his flying, he would be doing low altitude flights as well, he wouldn’t be interfering with commercial jet aircraft.

    Batman won’t have to worry about these regulations, he isn’t going to get caught anyway.

    He is acting in the public interest, and a jury of his peers would not find him guilty anyway, even if the case somehow made it to court.

  10. I love the blog, but this post is full of crap. It was obviously written by a non-pilot. I’m a pilot.

    If you are flying VFR (away from clouds) at a non-towered field, you can just fly. There is no need to tell anyone. You just get up and go. No flight plan at all. I fly a lot and *almost* all of my flights do not have a flight plan.

    If you want to fly over a few big cities (look up “class B airspace”) you will need to contact the tower and follow instructions. This is true of Manahata, but not most places. And still, no flight plan is needed.

    Now, if you want to fly through clouds or otherwise use IFR, you need to file a flight plan. This takes about 2 minutes. Then you must contact air traffic control and obey instructions.

    • You are correct. Flying in class e and g airspace does not require a flight plan.

      Most supers however hail from large metropolitan area which are usually covered by class b, c, or d airspace. Under Vfr this requires at minimum a transponder set to a code designated by he controller (skawking) in approaching those areas Is required to skawk 1200 to indicate location and altitude (mode s).

      Also if the super intends on flying above 18000 feet (fl18) they would be in class a that requires ifr.

      Bottom line is that unless their lairs are in the most remote areas away from international borders (Adiz in the us) they would likely have to identify themselves at some point unless they were skilled at avoiding the intricate airspace.

  11. Would air traffic control radar even pick up a flying superhero? Maybe Iron Man (but his suit probably has some stealth characteristics built-in), but will ATC radar register relatively small masses of flesh?

    • A lot of people assume this is a limitation od radar, but really it is something a computer clears up, ie the ATC computer will not bother to display objects so small and slow they are obviously birds and kites. Military radars track fast objects that are well within the size of a flying hero, such as artillery, bombs, and small missiles/rockets.

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