After 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in August, the Federal Aviation Administration agreed to a police request to ban air traffic in more than 37 square miles of airspace surrounding the town for 12 days, even though police privately acknowledged the purpose was to keep away news helicopters during violent street protests, according to recorded conversations obtained by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act.
The FAA records official phone conversations at its air traffic facilities, a policy that is known to employees. The initial flight restrictions hindered planes from landing at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport unless they violated the no-fly order. The recordings show FAA officials seeking police agreement the next morning to change the designation of the restricted area to allow air traffic into Lambert and then struggling with the wording of the no-fly order in an effort to prevent media from entering of the restricted area.
Manager at the FAA's Kansas City Center, one of 22 regional air traffic control facilities across the country: "OK, so they wanna know if we can change (the temporary flight restriction) to an A2 ... that still will keep ... it allow them to run the aircraft on final there at Saint Louis, it will still keep news people out. ... St. Louis has class bravo airspace, so they ... the only way people will get in there is if they (air traffic controllers) give them permission (to be) in there anyway so ... with the A2, it still keeps all of them out.
St. Louis County police captain: "Yeah ... I have no problem with that whatsoever."
Second Kansas City manager: "I went into the system and picked law enforcement ... and of course it puts the one in that says nobody can be in there except the relief aircraft. ...
Unidentified FAA employee: "Now what's relief aircraft? ..."
Manager: "It's whoever the police want in there at that point when it's a law enforcement one. The problem is, this is a very unusual situation ... because normally these are, you know, a mile (radius) and 1,000 feet (in altitude), you know, to keep media out ..."
FAA employee: "Hang on. Why are we even having that? Because, I mean, if it's just for media, like you said, then why is it so big? And, otherwise, we thought that it might've been for them trying to take pot shots at somebody. You know anything about that or anything?"
Manager: "I was talking to Jim, the FLM (front-line manager) in the tower, and I was talking to Chris at St. Louis County Police. The commander at St. Louis County wanted 3 (nautical) miles and 8,000 feet and I talked him down to 3 and 5. They finally admitted it really was to keep the media out ... but they were a little concerned of, obviously, anything else that could be going on."
Manager, later in the same conversation: "I'd like you to talk to the tower and get the coordination going again with the police department. They did not care if you ran commercial traffic through this TFR (temporary flight restriction) all day long. They didn't want media in there. ... There's no option for a TFR that says, you know, 'OK, everybody but the media is OK.'"
FAA employee: "Right, right ... And that's how we're interpreting this. We, we know what the intent is, but the way the thing comes out, it doesn't read like that at all."
Kansas City manager: "This is such a screwed up system when I, I don't have a choice to edit that language. ... How about I put something like, 'With the exception of aircraft landing and departing St. Louis Lambert Airport?'"
Airport Tower manager: "Either that, or 'under control,' or something like that ... some wording that as long as they're talking with us (air traffic control), it's OK."
Center: "The reason I wanna kinda throw in the 'landing and departing St. Louis Lambert' (is) because, if we put (in) talking to you, every media helicopter will say, 'Hey, we're talking to you, let's go.'"
Tower: "... Yeah. OK, That's perfect."
Kansas City manager: "It now reads, 'Temporary flight restrictions are in effect. Only relief aircraft operations under the direction of St. Louis County Police Department are authorized in this airspace. Aircraft landing and departing St. Louis Lambert Airport are exempt from this TFR.'"
FAA approach control official: "OK."
Manager: "And I kinda used that verbiage 'talking to the tower.' They assured me that there are no other little airports or anything else in there, 'cuz if we didn't make it that specific, you know, aircraft under control of the TRACON (approach control center) or the towers or something, the media would be right back in it."