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Threading the needle between Baltimore and Washington

Make no mistake, the airspace around the greater Washington, D.C., area is complex. Washington Dulles International Airport’s Class B on the western edge of the Washington, D.C., area is butted up next to the Class B airspace for Joint Base Andrews and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. The Washington, D.C., Flight Restricted Zone (FRZ) extends about 15 miles out from the DCA VOR/DME and the special flight rules area (SFRA) marks a 30-nautical-mile ring around the same. To the northeast is the Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport Class B airspace. Beyond that, in the eastern edge of the Chesapeake Bay, is the R-4001 restricted area complex around Aberdeen Proving Ground. There are also military bases and Class D airports sprinkled throughout the entire area. A one-time special security awareness training course is all that’s required to fly VFR within 60 nm of Washington, D.C., except for in the FRZ.

To get to the Delmarva Peninsula from Frederick, Maryland, where I’m based at AOPA headquarters, there are three options that don’t require a Class B clearance or FRZ vetting: Fly around to the west, around to the east, or straight through a narrow corridor between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.

Between Baltimore’s Class B airspace ring extending from 1,500 feet msl to 10,000 feet msl and the edge of the FRZ is a path for air traffic to transit the SFRA roughly northwest/southeast. The route is direct between the GPS waypoints VPONX on the north and VPOOP on the south. It squeezes you in every dimension. The Baltimore Class B airspace is above you at 2,500 feet msl, and the narrowest point between Baltimore’s outer ring and the FRZ is just 2 nm wide. Below you are very few landing options in case of an engine out.

Deviation outside of that corridor has serious consequences. You must be on your game, ahead of the airplane, and perfectly situationally aware.

I had flown through the corridor once in a Van’s Aircraft RV–12 equipped with an autopilot. Recently, I decided to hand-fly it in a Cessna 172N that was not so equipped.

A good friend of mine who happens to be an experienced flight instructor and I had intended to make a sunrise sortie down the Shenandoah River Valley and land back at Frederick Municipal Airport an hour or so later. A suggestion via text the afternoon before made me change the plan to a cross-country flight to eat breakfast at Sugar Buns Airport Café in Easton on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Why not? We hadn’t flown together since before the coronavirus pandemic. I could spend a bit more airtime for a good experience with a friend.

There was the navigational dilemma: around east, around west, or through the SFRA. The straight-through approach was the only logical plan. I filed the required SFRA flight plan and texted my highly rated passenger that he had to keep an eye on me as I hand-flew the tunnel for the first time.

I trimmed the airplane perfectly, I was on the magenta line like it was a rail, and I had the helpful voice of the Potomac approach controllers there to advise me of any traffic. The exhalation of seeing the FRZ boundary de-converge to the west as I passed the narrowest point was a pivotal moment in my confidence building. I did it (and it really wasn’t that hard)!

I took great comfort in having an experienced pilot along as a passenger to help keep an eye on things. I realize now, I could have done it without him on board. We took the long way around the Chesapeake Bay on the way home, only because it was a beautiful morning, no longer because I lacked the confidence to fly the corridor.

I’ve since flown through the corridor several times, and now it is my preferred way to navigate the complex Washington, D.C., airspace.

–By Paul Harrop

Paul Harrop has been an AOPA Live producer/videojournalist since 2012. He is a private pilot, currently working on his instrument rating.

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