Bounded roughly by Eglin Air Force Base, Hurlburt Field and Destin Executive Airport, the skies above this part of Northwest Florida are teeming with military, commercial and private aircraft.
FORT WALTON BEACH — It's informally known as "The Triangle," and it encompasses some of the most complex airspace in the nation.
Bounded roughly by Eglin Air Force Base (which includes Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport), the Air Force Special Operations Command's Hurlburt Field and Destin Executive Airport, the skies above this part of Northwest Florida are teeming with military, commercial and private aircraft.
An informal training area for private pilots lies to the east of The Triangle, and banner-towing airplanes and tour helicopters buzz along its beaches. Boat-towed parasails don't routinely pose any hazard, but pilots coming into the area are routinely advised to watch out for them, anyway.
Within all that, Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport handles 800,000 commercial airline passengers each year, along with considerable business traffic. Destin Executive Airport handles 65,000 "operations" — takeoffs are considered a single operation, as are landings — each year, in a mix of private and business aircraft, including large numbers of private pilots bringing family and friends to the local beaches for vacation.
The airspace is "really pretty unique," according to Bill Castlen, a local flight instructor.
Castlen has written a Federal Aviation Administration-sanctioned online course to familiarize private pilots with the area. The course, on the Destin Executive Airport website at http://bit.ly/2Hx0Gru, can provide even the general public with a sense of how tricky it can be to navigate local airspace.
Here is part of the first paragraph of the online course: "Destin, Florida, is a very attractive destination and has a very convenient airport literally within walking distance of beautiful beaches and deep-sea fishing facilities. Destin is also located within and near unusual and complex airspace. While using this airspace is quite straightforward, the unknowledgeable pilot can easily be overtaken by events and — at the least — be embarrassed, or — at worst — become involved in a serious safety event."
In some instances, that embarrassment has come from landing at the wrong airport. On occassion, private pilots have landed at Eglin, according to Staff Sgt. Kyle Reiss, an air traffic controller with Eglin's 96th Operations Support Squadron. Reiss is among the mix of military and civilian Department of Defense air traffic controllers who direct aircraft using Eglin and the adjacent Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport.
"It's happened before," Reiss said. Now, though, Eglin controllers routinely ask pilots if they have both the Eglin complex and Destin Executive in sight to ensure they're headed for the correct airport, Reiss added.
And "every once in a while there's a close call," he said.
That's not as discomforting as it may sound, since a near-miss is defined officially as aircraft coming within three miles of one another with less than 1,000 feet of vertical separation.
Technically speaking, the airspace in and around the local military installations is one of a dozen sections of the sky over the United States designated in Part 93 of the Code of Federal Regulations. Each of the Part 93 areas — including parts of New York City, Washington, D.C., the Grand Canyon and Los Angeles — comes with strict rules for aircraft operations.
In the local airspace, flights into or across the area are limited to two corridors. One of the corridors, extending upward to 18,000 feet, runs north to south and takes air traffic to the east of Eglin. The other corridor, designed to keep air traffic organized in the vicinity of Hurlburt Field, takes aircraft east to west along the beaches all the way to Laguna Beach. Depending on where an aircraft is in the east-west corridor, it extends upward to either 8,500 feet or 18,000 feet.
Adding to the complexity of navigating the local airspace is that Eglin will occasionally close off some airspace, likely between some specific altitudes, to accommodate some of its missions. Those closings are communicated to pilots and air traffic controllers within at least a half-hour of when they occur, according to Reiss.
Since Nov. 1, Reiss and other air traffic controllers at Eglin and Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport have had some help from Destin Executive Airport. That's when Destin Executive's $6 million control tower became operational. Now, from 6 a.m. tol 10 p.m. daily, Destin Executive air traffic controllers handle aircraft near that airport.
Castlen is cautiously optimistic the new tower will improve conditions.
"My expectation is that it will help a lot," he said. "But ask the same question after spring break."
Tracy Stage, Okaloosa County's airports director who oversees Destin Executive Airport and Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport, is more optimistic that air traffic safety during vacation season will be enhanced with the new tower. Destin Executive controllers will have a direct line of sight with air traffic in their vicinity, and can safely sequence takeoffs and landings, he said.
A major local issue, Castlen said, is pilots flying under federally defined Visual Flight Rules (VFR) as opposed to Instrument Flight Rules (IFR), which are no problem in navigating local airspace. Generally, that means they must have certain distances of unobstructed vision and must maintain awareness of nearby air traffic. VFR pilots comprise the majority of pilots coming into the Destin area for recreational purposes. Many of them come here from several states away, Castlen said, and aren't familiar with the special rules for local airspace
When flying VFR, "you don't have to talk much to anybody, and therein lies the problem." Castlen said.
VFR pilots can familiarize themselves with Destin airspace in advance of flying into the area, and can tell local controllers when they arrive in local skies that they are aware of the specific flight corridors. But many pilots don't take that step, and have to be talked through the area by controllers, Castlen said.
Stage disagreed somewhat with Castlen's assessment.
"If you're a pilot, you have to file a flight plan," he said. "You cannot fly into this airspace without knowing" about its Part 93 status. According to Destin Executive records, there were more than 3,028 operations at the airport in January, more than a thrid of which were IFR operations.
Like Castlen, Reiss sees education and awareness as the best tools for pilots flying into Northwest Florida. He had five words of advice: "Definitely be researching the area," he said.