Military Airspace

Craniums Up!

September 1, 1999

How to avoid a close encounter of the military kind

Military airspace sends shock waves of fear through the spines of some pilots, while other pilots could not care less about it. The ones who have had a close encounter of the scary kind were probably involved in a close call or near-midair collision with a high-speed fighter or giant transport in a military operations area (MOA). The rest have probably traversed military airspace unscathed several times without seeing another airplane at all. Until…

Airspace allocation has been a volatile issue for decades. General aviation complains that the military has too much airspace, and vice versa. Regardless of what becomes of the ongoing mine-vs.-yours issue of airspace use, pilot education is the only option to head off potential disaster.

On May 5, an alert F-16 pilot flying in an Arizona MOA avoided disaster when, in the midst of high-speed, high-G maneuvers involving several of the fighters, he happened to spot a civilian twin transiting the area VFR at 16,500 feet. The F-16 pilot called "Knock it off" to his peers to alert them to the traffic conflict. Engagement was suspended until the intruder was out of the area.

What went wrong here? Legally speaking, absolutely nothing. Although it may not have been the best idea, the pilot of the GA twin was legal to fly VFR through a MOA at 16,500 feet. In addition, ATC is not required to give traffic alerts for VFR targets to the F-16s.

Besides the obvious safety concerns are the implications that a midair collision would have on both general aviation and the military as a whole. At the least, general aviation could expect a knee-jerk reaction from Congress that could, for example, prompt the FAA to turn MOAs into restricted airspace, making VFR passage nearly impossible when the airspace is in use.

Direct-to nav exacerbates problem

Of all the benefits that GPS, loran, and RNAV systems bring us, it has wreaked havoc on the number of incursions into special-use airspace. For example, at last year's AOPA Fly-In to Frederick, Maryland, the U.S. Secret Service counted 13 incursions into the Camp David prohibited area before noon on the day of the fly-in. P-40, located about 14 nm northwest of Frederick, has a 6-nm diameter that protects the area from the surface to 5,000 feet over the presidential retreat near Thurmont, Maryland. Although prohibited areas typically don't contain military operations, incursion numbers like this point to an obvious need for more airspace vigilance and preflight planning. Had the president been at Camp David that day, many pilots probably would have met with stiff violations.

Large-scale events such as EAA's AirVenture in Oshkosh prompt many bases to voluntarily scale back military operations to minimize the chance of an in-flight conflict. The Volk MOAs and restricted areas, located west of Oshkosh, see very limited use on the several days before, during, and after AirVenture. Military airspace may remain "active" or "hot" during such times to discourage transition through the MOAs and restricted areas. But if someone blindly barrels through the area, it is unlikely that the pilot will cause a conflict because of the limited operations during the period.

Airspace review

A set of current charts and just a basic idea of your route will provide enough insight as to whether military airspace will be a factor for your flight. If you're VFR and special-use airspace lies along your planned route, several questions need to be answered. What type of area is it? What are the hours of operation? And who is the controlling agency? If you are able to file IFR, airspace becomes a nonissue.

Prohibited areas are the most restrictive forms of special-use airspace. According to the Federal Aviation Regulations, "no person may operate an aircraft [in a prohibited area] without the permission of the using agency." The Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) adds, "Such areas are established for security or other reasons associated with the national welfare." Fortunately, the number of prohibited areas is limited. They are depicted on VFR sectional charts and on IFR low-altitude en route and instrument approach charts. If the area extends to 18,000 feet and above, it will appear on high-altitude charts as well.

Restricted areas contain such hazards as aerial gunnery, guided missile use, artillery firing, high-speed maneuvering, and other unsavory goings-on. They are depicted on sectional and en route charts. On sectionals the active times of use are noted in the margin. Restricted areas are far larger in scale than prohibited areas and should be treated with nearly as much caution.

Warning areas are located over domestic or international waters and should be treated with caution since many of the activities that occur in restricted areas also take place there. VFR traffic can fly through a warning area, but it is strongly suggested that pilots contact ATC or flight service before penetrating such an area.

MOAs were created after a number of midair collisions involving GA and military aircraft occurred many years ago. Like restricted areas, MOAs contain military aircraft that are engaging in aerobatic or abrupt flight maneuvers. The AIM says that pilots transiting VFR through a MOA should "exercise extreme caution." MOAs separate military training activities from IFR traffic only. ATC can clear a nonparticipating aircraft through a MOA if adequate separation can be assured. On the MOA front, the Air Force is currently urging the FAA to allow night "lights-out" operations so that crews can more accurately train using night-vision equipment. AOPA is opposed to the proposal because of the obvious safety implications that this could pose on civilian VFR traffic transiting a MOA at night.

Military training routes (MTRs) can be IFR or VFR. The routes are depicted as thin gray lines on sectional charts. IFR routes are labeled with an IR and a three- or four-number identifier. Visual routes are labeled by a VR followed by three or four numbers. IRs are generally flown at 1,500 feet and above, and VFR routes exist below that altitude. Operations on IRs can be at speeds higher than 250 knots below 10,000 feet. MTR route width can be several miles wide, so the thin gray line depicted on the chart can be somewhat misleading. In flight, pilots can obtain the status of the MTRs from flight service. As you can imagine, flight service personnel say that they are never asked about MTR usage. Information on charts regarding actual route width and altitudes could improve the situation greatly.

Alert areas are set up to contain areas of high-volume flight training or, according to the AIM, "unusual types of aerial activity." All activity in alert areas is supposed to be in accordance with the FARs, making see-and-avoid the only method to ensure collision avoidance. Alert areas are depicted on sectional charts with blue hatched borders and labeled with an A followed by a number.

Controlled firing areas are not charted and thus can legally be transited under VFR. Activity within them is suspended upon radar or visual identification of intruder aircraft.

Finally, there are temporary flight restrictions (TFRs), which are set up to protect persons in the air and on the ground from events that are occurring in that area. TFRs are usually set up around areas of fires to allow firebombers and their lead aircraft to safely maneuver over them. Visitors to April's Sun 'n Fun Fly-In in Lakeland, Florida, were treated to the effects of a TFR, thanks to a fire south of the field that closed the airport for a few hours. TFRs are also set up for space-launch activities or if the president or other prominent public figures are to be in the area. Pilots need to aware that TFRs can pop up at a moment's notice.

Stealth airspace

Even those who are savvy in airspace knowledge may draw a blank at the terms LATN and SR. LATN stands for low-altitude tactical navigation, which occurs in areas whose boundaries are known only by the units that use them. LATNs are not charted because military pilots must adhere to the same VFR weather and speed restrictions as civilian pilots. The basic 1,000-and-3 ceiling and visibility requirements apply, as do the speed restriction to maintain 250 knots or less below 10,000 feet. It's not unusual to see A-10 Warthogs or C-130 Hercules airplanes in a LATN area skimming along above the treetops at only a few hundred feet. For civilian pilots unaware of the existence of a LATN, it could come as an awful surprise to takeoff from a private strip and be face-to- face with an A-10 snorting toward them at more than 200 knots.

SRs are slow-speed, low-altitude training routes used by military aircraft. As in a LATN, military pilots flying these routes must adhere to visual flight rules, which explains why they are not charted. Again, don't be surprised to see military aircraft flying at low altitudes at speeds as high as 250 knots in areas not protected by a MOA or restricted area. SRs are published, but only in the Department of Defense's Flight Information Publication (FLIP) chart. These charts are available for viewing at flight service stations.

What to do?

If you're flying VFR, rediscovering the art of see and avoid is the only course of action that can be taken by civilian pilots. Whenever possible, use flight following from air traffic control and query the controller as to the current status of the airspace. Military airspace can be "hot" or "cold" at any time, despite what the charted operation times say. Pilots flying in the area of the Patuxent River (Maryland) Naval Air Station may find that the restricted airspace associated with it was cold on the way into an airport, but after a 10-minute quick turn be met with an indication that the areas are hot. In such a situation it's best to contact the controlling agency as soon as possible after takeoff and remain clear. Even when the areas are hot, controllers may be able to work you through the airspace with little hassle or rerouting.

A call or visit to the local military base or guard unit may reveal some valuable information regarding airspace that you regularly use. Luke Air Force Base in Phoenix, Arizona, has been quite proactive in getting the word out to local pilots. In fact, the base rolls out the red carpet to general aviation pilots once a year at the Luke Civilian Fly-In. Last year, 165 airplanes and 440 pilots attended the event. This year's fly-in is scheduled to take place this month.

"The main purpose of the fly-in is to reduce the threat of a midair collision and increase awareness of the potential hazards associated with the local traffic pattern, MOAs, MTRs, and restricted areas," said Maj. Ned Linch, an F-16 pilot based at Luke. "It also provides a cross-flow of safety information between civilian and military pilots which may prevent or reduce future near misses. Having an F-16 pilot explain an air-to-air engagement in a MOA or low-level flying on a MTR speaks volumes to civilians pilots who generally do not know the hazards associated with MOAs and MTRs."

To encourage pilot participation, Luke offers some time in the F-16 simulator on a lottery basis. They also brief visitors on the F-16, desert survival, and explain the Midair Collision Avoidance (MACA) program, an information-sharing program to raise awareness of military training. Similar fly-ins and programs are in place at other bases, and civilian pilots are highly encouraged to attend or visit the associated Web sites. For a good example of a MACA Web page, see Vance (Oklahoma) Air Force Base's site ( Luke ex-pects to have a MACA Web page soon. Also check out for more information on military airspace and links to MACA sites.

For now, the base has a flight safety Web site ( More and more bases are setting up MACA programs and civilian fly-ins, so stay tuned for such an event in your local area. Awareness programs such as this will be the key to avoiding that close encounter of the scary kind.

A Military Pilot's Perspective

Why they probably don't see you

Part of the research for this story involved riding in the rear cockpit of an F-16D with the 309th Fighter Squadron "Wild Ducks" at Luke Air Force Base near Phoenix, Arizona. My front seater was Maj. Ned Linch, who graciously arranged to give AOPA Pilot a "red-carpet ride," allowing me to gain a pilot's perspective of a day in the life of a military pilot.

Our mission involved 10 F-16s, which are also known as Vipers. (For reasons not readily shared by them, F-16 pilots hate the airplane's official moniker, Fighting Falcon.) We would be the lead of a two-ship portion of this mission. We blasted out of Luke and headed for the Gladden MOA. Once in there, we started with a G warm-up, which, on this day, consisted of two 90-degree-bank, seven-G turns. Maintaining consciousness was first on my mind, followed closely by the rude realization of the power of a G suit, which in a fabulous boa-constrictor method, squeezes the legs and torso in order to keep your blood up where it belongs.

Our mission was to drop bombs on "airfields" from both high and low altitudes. These runs involved sudden and abrupt aerobatic maneuvers involving G loads so high that it's a wonder the pilot can maintain the concentration to maneuver the airplane precisely, monitor the targeting display, and retain situational awareness with the ground and the other airplanes at all times.

In the midst of these mind-scrambling maneuvers, it's no wonder that looking for traffic is probably the last thing on a fighter pilot's mind. Of course, these pilots were immersed step-by-step into this type of flying; but, on the civilian side, it would be safe to say that only seasoned aerobatic pilots would have a chance to maintain total situational awareness throughout such maneuvers.

Were an intruder aircraft to be spotted during such training, pilots would be informed and suspend operations until the threat was gone. If collision with an intruder was imminent, among many other factors, the pilot of the lead airplane must take into consideration his wingman who may be mere feet off his wingtip. A turn in the wrong direction would obviously spell disaster.

Besides being an absolute kick in the pants, the purpose of the mission at hand was to demonstrate that military pilots — in the midst of high-G aerobatic maneuvers — probably will not be able to do their part in the see-and-avoid game. After this demonstration you can bet that this pilot will certainly take VFR passage through a MOA much more seriously. — PAB

Links to all Web sites referenced in this issue and to other information on special-use airspace can be found on AOPA Online (