Answers for Pilots

It's a jungle out there

October 1, 2000

Flying in congested airspace

Twenty years of recreational flying hadn't prepared Norman Cowell, AOPA 712203, of Lomita, California, for the Democratic National Convention. Taking New Jersey relatives for a sightseeing tour over the harbor and Los Angeles, Cowell inadvertently slipped inside the five-mile radius of temporary restricted airspace over the Staples Center, site of the convention.

"I thought that I was safe and had skirted the restricted space, but when I reported in to Santa Monica, the Tower said that I had been in a restricted area," said Cowell. "A Customs agent on the ground [in Santa Monica] told me I had been picked up on radar in the area. He told me that since there had been no critical activity taking place at the time, I was lucky."

Navigating around that restricted area was complicated by the fact that it is situated in California's most congested airspace. In fact, Cowell has been flying in the Southern California area for two decades, watching the congestion grow and grow. A weekend flier, Cowell seldom makes radio calls, content to enjoy the sky and his airplane. But as the skies get more crowded, Cowell is finding his flying more challenging.

"Congested airspace is in the eyes of the beholder," said Craig Brown, an AOPA aviation technical specialist. "Where I might see five airplanes in the traffic pattern as no big deal, someone else, such as a student pilot, might see it as congested airspace.

"For example, here in Frederick [Maryland] seven airplanes in the air is busy; in the Baltimore/Washington, D.C., Class B area, seven is hardly busy at all."

Brown suggests several techniques for flying in congested airspace - no matter what you perceive as "congested."

  • Heightened or increased vigilance: "If you are doing your job, you're always looking outside the aircraft. Look around the airplane, not just forward."
  • Increased situational awareness: "Know where you are relative to other airplanes. Get a mental picture of where you are and where the other airplanes are."
  • Monitor the radio: "You might remember the N number, or that the call came from a particular type of aircraft. You'll remember the call and the position of the aircraft."
  • Make your reports: "Identify yourself to other aircraft. Keep aware of who is in the pattern, who's doing touch and goes, who's making full-stop landings. It's all part of your situational awareness; and if some guy is flying over at 4,500 feet, who cares? He's not your problem."

For Cowell, flying in Southern California's busy airspace means knowing the area and using the appropriate charts. "I've been flying here for a long time and I'm pretty adapted to it. I'd rather land at an uncontrolled field and not use the radio too much, but obviously sometimes I have to. I'd like to stay a pleasure flier."

Cowell called Paul Smith, an AOPA aviation technical specialist, after his venture into restricted airspace. Smith advised Cowell to be "understanding and cooperative." After all, Cowell had slipped into the airspace inadvertently. He's filed a NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System form, and it is probable that the FAA will look into the incident.

"When flying in any type of airspace, be vigilant," reiterated Brown.

As an AOPA member, you have access to the best resource anywhere for information and answers for pilots. AOPA Online ( provides members with access to a wealth of information and resources 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The AOPA toll-free Pilot Information Center gives you direct access to specialists in every area of aviation. The center, 800/USA-AOPA (800/872-2672), is available to members from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday.

AOPA Web resources

The AOPA Air Safety Foundation's Airspace for Everyone Safety Advisor includes three-dimensional drawings and portions of sectional charts.

The Operations at Towered Airports Safety Advisor gives detailed information on how to operate safely at busy towered airports.

The official FAA site dedicated to increasing awareness of runway incursions and how to avoid them.

A series of articles from AOPA Pilot concerning runway incursions.

This article from AOPA Flight Training magazine, titled "Collision Avoidance Made Easy," helps pilots learn to see other airplanes in time.

From AOPA President Phil Boyer, "Negotiating the Airspace Maze" details his experiences in flying in California's congested airspace.

Julie Walker

Julie Summers Walker | AOPA Senior Features Editor

AOPA Senior Features Editor Julie Summers Walker joined AOPA in 1998. She is a student pilot still working toward her solo.