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Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Best rejection ever.

Our Dulles-Newark flight has a bit of a crazy flight plan. Instead of going anywhere near a straight line, it starts out in the right direction, then wanders off to the southeast for a while, which is totally the wrong way. It ambles to the east for a while once it reaches Baltimore, then finally swings northeast, which is where we need to be going.

Our filed flight plan is the red line; the route air traffic control usually has us fly is the black line shortcut. Chart excerpt from

This flight plan, in red above, isn't created to waste fuel or give passengers a nice view of the Baltimore Browns's football stadium. The out-of-the-way nature comes because of the need to connect with the bottom right portion of the "Big Dipper"-like route there. That corner is SWANN intersection, which is the transition we use to begin the RUUTH1 arrival into Newark.

Most of the time, this isn't what we end up flying anyway; it's only in the computer for planning purposes. Usually by the time we hit the first corner (which is WOOLY intersection), we are cleared direct to ODESA. This creates a nice little shortcut, which I've outlined in black above.

Notice the box in the middle that says, "CAUTION: UNMARKED BALLOONS ON CABLE TO 10,000' MSL". Chart excerpt from

However, that shortcut happens to pass through a restricted area, R-4001A-C. This is near Aberdeen Proving Ground (yes, that is spelled correctly), and is airspace set aside for a pair of tethered balloons (techincally, aerostats) that are part of the Army's JLENS program. Those are the "unmarked balloons on cable" mentioned in the box above.

Normally that is no big deal. Air traffic control clears us through it, since we're above 10,000 feet anyway. I often get a chance to snap some pictures of the aerostats as we pass right on through the restricted area. Here is a picture of them that I took on October 17, 2015:

There are two of them in this picture: one just above the wiper toward the center left, and the other close to the horizon at the upper right.
This is a cropped, zoomed-in version of the center of the picture above so you can see both of them.
Unfortunately, on October 28th, one of them broke loose. It traveled 160 miles over Maryland and Pennsylvania, and its broken tether—over a mile of it—scraped along the ground behind it, knocking out power lines along the way. It also led to the slowest air chase in history, as a pair of F-16s followed it on its rampage.

Two days later, we were flying our normal Dulles-Newark flight. Once we reached WOOLY, we didn't get our normal shortcut. After a bit, I asked for it. The controller's response was, "Sorry, I can't give that to you today because of that balloon that ran away from home the other day."

We chuckled and a Southwest pilot keyed the microphone, summing it up perfectly by saying, "Best rejection ever."

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The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program and a former FAASafety Team representative. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

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