The Federal Aviation Administration warned pilots from Key West to Virginia this week that a Navy exercise in coastal waters may make a critical aircraft anticollision system "unreliable" for all of September.
While the wording of the FAA notice has alarmed some in aviation circles, the FAA said Thursday that the issue poses no safety threat.
The FAA's notice Tuesday reminded pilots of a fail-safe tool they can always use to detect other aircraft — their eyeballs.
"Pilots are advised to maintain an increased visual awareness," the FAA said.
Even without a suggestion of a serious safety issue, the notice is causing some consternation with a business aviation group concerned because pilots were given such short notice.
"I think the bottom line is that the industry was caught off-guard," said Bob Lamond, director of air traffic services and infrastructure for the National Business Aviation Association. "That's an understatement, probably."
Lamond said he was surprised by the wording of the FAA notice, which on first impression led him to think the dangers of planes colliding were much increased. But he said that after talking to FAA officials this week, he is assured there is no danger.
"I think they're just exercising extreme prudence," Lamond said. "I'm assured by the FAA the chances of anything actually occurring are statistically insignificant."
So who is behind the problem? Lamond said he was told that it's the U.S. Navy. A naval carrier battle group is conducting an exercise somewhere off the coast.
The wording of the FAA warning suggests the Navy is employing some sort of electronic jamming, said John Cox, a St. Petersburg resident who is a former U.S. Airways pilot and a former safety official at the Air Line Pilots Association,
The Navy did not return calls for comment. U.S. Northern Command, which provides military support to civilian authorities, confirmed the exercise involved the Navy but could not provide additional details.
Cox said the warning is highly unusual — he said he had never seen one like it — but did not think it pointed to any serious safety concern.
"If they thought it a serious safety threat, they'd close off the airspace like they do for rocket launches," Cox said. "And they're not doing that."
Aircraft pilots flying in Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina and Virginia were warned about the problem and said it could affect aircraft flying up to 200 miles offshore.
The FAA notice warned pilots, "the traffic alert and collision avoidance system may fail to establish track on nearby aircraft and may fail to receive traffic alerts."
The systems generally involved are used by aircraft that fly above 18,000 feet, said Lamond of the NBAA.
Scary language if you are a pilot, perhaps too scary if no real threat was involved, according to the business aviation group.
The problem, the FAA said, does not involve radar that tracks aircraft.
"Air traffic controllers will continue to provide safe separation of aircraft, as they normally do," the agency said in a statement.
The FAA didn't say much beyond that.
Lamond said he was told by the FAA that the notice went out late because defense officials failed to provide timely notification to the agency.
Dan Hubbard, a spokesman for Lamond's group, said this sort of last-minute aviation warning potentially makes it difficult for businesses to plan their air travel. This is especially problematic if FAA warnings are not reliable and accurate.
Cox, the former pilot living in St. Petersburg, said he wasn't too alarmed by the notice.
"I think the military is just doing what the military does," he said.
Contact William R. Levesque at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432. Follow @Times_Levesque.