A pilot I know (lets call him Joe) recently had a minor run in with the FAA after he skirted the edge of the Washington DC Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA) while returning to Leesburg (JYO). Here are the details:

  • Joe was returning from KOMH.
  • Joe was trying to get on the ground quickly to avoid a wall of convective sigmet from the west, moving east quickly and threatening to engulf Leesburg and his landing in a small GA plane.
  • Joe was in contact with the Leesburg Tower Note: Leesburg is NOT usually a towered airport. However Leesburg has been a test site for mobile air traffic control tower and that tower was operational when this occurred.
  • Joe was instructed by the tower to "Proceed directly to Leesburg". He immediately turned directly towards Leesburg (right turn shown on chart), received permission to land and landed.
  • Joe was provided with a number to call by the tower.
  • Joe was interviewed by someone in the FAA, told he had skirted the SFRA, received a warning and the case was closed with no further action.

enter image description here

Though the case was closed it was still the FAA's position that a violation of the SFRA rules had occurred.

What I find confusing about this case is that, if ATC instructed Joe to "proceed directly to Leesburg", doesn't that mean they cleared him through the portion of the SFRA he will need to fly through to comply with their instruction?

Research done for this question

  • I have taken the SFRA training required to fly VFR in the SFRA and have again reviewed this material after hearing of Joe's incident. I've found nothing in that material that conclusively answers this question.
  • I have reviewed this question/answers about flying in the Washington DC SFRA.
  • I have reviewed this general question about flying in SFRAs.
  • I have reviewed the NOTAM associated with Ingress/Egress to/from Leesburg airport.
  • I have reviewed already asked questions and did not find this specific question having already been asked.
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Did Joe file a flight plan? I controller can "clear" you to fly through it, but you will still be in violation of the rules if you did not file a flight plan and operate on an assigned transponder code. The controller may have opened one for him in flight. $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    Aug 7 '17 at 2:58
  • $\begingroup$ @mins Leesburg is inside the DC SFRA, something that "Joe" should have known since it was his destination. That means he would have had to file a flight plan prior to departure. $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    Aug 7 '17 at 11:26
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @RonBeyer that is not correct. Ingress/Egress in and out of Leesburg does not require a flight plan. Joe would only have to (and did) squawk 1226. This is detailed in the NOTAM I referenced in my post. $\endgroup$ Aug 7 '17 at 11:43
  • $\begingroup$ @bclarkreston It is, if you look at the charts it is about 1.5 miles inside the DC SFRA. The JYO website confirms this. This is something that "Joe" should have known prior to leaving his destination. Any flight within the DC SFRA requires a flight plan. $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    Aug 7 '17 at 12:55
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @RonBeyer you are correct, JYO is inside the DC SFRA. You do not, however, require a flight plan to land their from outside the SFRA. Again, I reference the NOTAM regarding this. This also has it's own chapter in the DC SFRA Course, a required course for all pilots who want to fly VFR within 60 NM of the KDCA DME. I've taken this course twice. I should also note that I fly in and out of KJYO roughly twice a month. $\endgroup$ Aug 7 '17 at 13:14

An AOPA article on this has a chart of the Leesburg Maneuvering Area (LMA) which, as you said, doesn't require a DC SFRA flight plan (you do need one for pattern work, though):

Leesburg Maneuvering Area

If you compare the area in the chart to the flight path in the image in your question, it looks to me like Joe entered the SFRA southwest of JYO and then entered the south edge of the LMA. I suspect the FAA is saying that he should have flown further north, then entered the LMA from the west. In other words, he cut through a corner of the SFRA. I've marked that in red here:

enter image description here

The LMA NOTAM says:


By cutting the corner, Joe entered a part of the SFRA that was outside the LMA, hence the call with the FAA. That's my interpretation, at least, although I'm surprised that the FAA didn't spell out to him very clearly what the issue was.

And to answer the question in the title, ATC cannot clear a pilot to do something he isn't authorized to do. ATC could clear a student pilot into class B airspace, but if the student doesn't have a logbook endorsement for that airspace then he still isn't allowed to enter (barring emergencies). "Proceed direct Leesburg" doesn't mean "fly in a straight line to Leesburg regardless of other considerations", the pilot still has to get there legally.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The last sentence sums it up nicely. +1 $\endgroup$
    – dalearn
    Aug 7 '17 at 23:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Pondlife, I've accepted (and voted for) your answer, but I'm still a bit confused. FAR 91.123(b) says: Except in an emergency, no person may operate an aircraft contrary to an ATC instruction in an area in which air traffic control is exercised. Wouldn't Joe have been violating this FAR had he not flown directly to Leesburg? I know that the title of my question refers to a clearance, but now that I've thought about it a bit, I would actually call "Proceed directly to Leesburg" more of an instruction than a clearance. Thoughts? $\endgroup$ Aug 8 '17 at 18:29
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @bclarkreston This question is about exactly that issue. I'd sum it up like this: ATC cannot possibly know everything about what you and your aircraft are technically and legally capable of, and saying "unable" or requesting a specific flight path is not a violation of 91.123. Or, as one instructor said to me: "they don't like to hear it, but they work for you, not the other way around" :-) $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Aug 8 '17 at 18:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Pondlife, isn't there a difference between VFR and IFR in this case though? In IFR the clearance does have higher priority than restricted spaces, no? (in general; of course this is a small airfield where you wouldn't be flying IFR). $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Jun 2 '20 at 7:42
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @JanHudec Well, maybe :) ATC can indeed vector aircraft through restricted airspace if they have procedures in place for doing that (ATC orders 9-3-4). As a pilot, though, I always ask before entering the airspace, just in case; ATC makes mistakes too. And I haven't done the SFRA training so it's possible that there are special rules that I don't know about there. By the way, VFR vs IFR doesn't really make a difference. If you're in controlled airspace you're required to follow ATC instructions and clearances regardless of flight rules (91.123). $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Jun 5 '20 at 4:28

Having a controller issue a clearance does not exempt a pilot from the regulations, nor does it establish a waiver. FAA case histories are clear on that. Furthermore, the rules for the SFRA are clear, and well publicized.

Remember that a pilot may refuse a clearance, and should consider doing so when they are concerned that accepting that clearance might result in a violation.


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