Wallops gets more room to fly experimental aircraft

ACCOMAC, Va. (Delmarva Now) -- NASA is getting a larger no-fly zone around Wallops Flight Facility for when it conducts experimental flights that its staff believes could pose a threat to other aircraft.

The Federal Aviation Administration has approved the space agency's request to double the size of its restricted airspace. The Oct. 31 decision includes some concessions to local pilots, including a provision that pilots must be notified at least 12 hours in advance of its activation.

"We’re very pleased with the FAA’s final decision," officials at the facility said in a statement, "and we look forward to working with the local aviation community as we implement the procedures for operating in the airspace."

The measure's advocates have said the expansion is necessary to support Virginia's growing aerospace industry.

Wallops test flights have been delayed in the past because of the presence of outside aircraft in its closed airspace, NASA said in its official response to public comments. The agency didn't specify how often that had happened, though.

The proposal's backers included, among others, the Virginia Department of Aviation, the Tri-County Council for the Lower Eastern Shore of Maryland and the business group the Wallops Island Regional Alliance.

The enlarged area should be a boon for drone testing, said Peter Bale, chair of the Regional Alliance. No longer will flights require so-called "chase planes" to monitor unmanned aircraft, he said.

The NASA request doesn't apply to the rocket launches it conducts on nearby Wallops Island. The extra restricted space is intended for the three runways it operates on its mainland base north of Chincoteague Road.

The current restricted area extends east from the mainland facility into the Atlantic Ocean, bounded by Toms Cove to the north and Cedar Island to the south. The new area would include that existing swath and reach west to Route 13, stretching from Parksley to just southeast of Snow Hill.

Flying restrictions would only have to be activated as needed, and that wouldn't be every day, officials said.

General aviation pilots and their advocates objected to the proposal, saying having to fly around the larger airspace would burn more fuel and cost more money. But one key advocacy group signaled relief in the finalized version.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association said the new rules incorporated several of their suggestions. The group received assurances that the FAA would implement technical upgrades to help pilots navigate around the airspace. And NASA would give 12 hours' notice before restricting flights.

Other concessions include the possibility of activating certain parts of the restricted airspace separately and allowing crop dusters and mosquito-spraying aircraft to operate when the airspace is activated.


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