How Low Do They Go?
In military airspace, when it's hot, look out
BY TIM WRIGHT (From AOPA Pilot, January 2005.)
Let's face it 480 knots is moving pretty fast no matter where you are. But at 500 feet agl, pulling 8.5 Gs with a 70-degree bank, "pretty fast" seems something of an understatement. When the world below is slipping past your wing tips so close and so fast, you don't want unnecessary distractions. Just an additional, unintended 10 to 15 degrees of bank mean you slam into the ground in about three seconds. It's not a place for surprises or inattention.
In an attempt to get a better picture of how the military uses low-level airspace, the U.S. Air Force agreed to let AOPA tag along for a flight on VR1754, one of the many high-speed, low-level military training routes (MTRs) scattered across the mid-Atlantic coast. But with the weather over West Virginia holding a steady 300-foot ceiling our VFR plan was scrapped before we could launch from Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia.
With our original plan in the trash, my pilot and guardian from the 71st Fighter Squadron, a 20-something blond-haired, blue-eyed walking recruiting poster named Capt. Jared Santos, proposed plan B. "Vic," as he introduced himself by phone a few weeks before, said we could cancel the flight altogether or switch to the Farmville MOA (military operations area) for routine low-level training. The decision took less than a second to consider and, as plan B went into action, Vic canceled VR1754 and filed for Farmville.
The F-15 is designed to be a high-altitude interceptor. Its job is to fly high and shoot down bad guys from far away. But as most military folks will tell you, "The enemy has a vote," and he won't always fight the way you want him to. To be ready, F-15s, F-16s, F-18s, and other air superiority fighters need to come down to Earth and practice combat operations in a low-altitude environment. That need is why the Farmville MOA, a golf-club-shape chunk of airspace over the rolling Piedmont of Virginia, was created.
With a full-bird colonel for his wingman, Vic leads us into the MOA with a steady step down from 12,000 feet msl to 1,000 feet agl. Radio calls to Washington Center air traffic control provide the local altimeter setting and initiate the MOA as being "hot." In honor of my civilian status, it was deemed beforehand that Vic would try to maintain 1,000 feet agl instead of the normal 500 feet and we'd slow to 420 knots from a typical 480 knots. Vic would later describe the flight as "pretty vanilla."
Once inside the MOA, Vic warns we're about to take some Gs as a "warmup" for the rest of the flight. Immediately we violently roll into a series of right and left turns. Each turn develops at least 6 Gs and as much as 8.5 Gs for as long as 30 seconds. The camera in my hand becomes nearly impossible to keep to my eye and my stomach starts working its way to my toes.
With the G warmup out of the way, we began flying what the Air Force calls "tactical turns." In short, the two aircraft take turns making high-G, 45-to-90-degree heading changes in order to check each other's blind spots with radar and eyeballs. Then they repeat the process to the opposite direction so that they snake their way across the MOA.
It didn't take too many turns before I began seeking the relief of a barf bag. Vic rolled level and called "One-Bravo is code two" over the radio to wingman Col. Creid Johnson. That told Johnson we'd be flying straight and level so I could begin heaving. A few seconds later I was in my own world when Vic's urgent voice and sharp words penetrated my consciousness. I pulled my head out of my little white bag in a futile attempt to see a Cessna that Vic had spotted cruising southbound through the middle of the MOA.
The irritation in Vic's voice as he directed my gaze was unmistakable and more understandable with my new enlightenment. At these speeds and altitudes, just avoiding the ground and your wingman is a lot of work. Add to that the need for situational awareness regarding other aircraft, navigation requirements, communications, and weapons tactics, and you've got a "task saturated" environment for the pilot.
As a general aviation pilot, I've always been too chicken to fly into a hot MOA because my first flight instructor instilled a simultaneous fear of God and MOAs and I'm glad he did. Now I know firsthand that when a GA aircraft flies through the middle of maneuvering jets, it's like a blind man walking through traffic. With up to 20 military aircraft crammed into a chunk of sky during training for major strikes, the risk of a collision is so high for everyone that the military stops what it's doing until the GA aircraft has cleared the area.
While MOAs and MTRs are special-use airspace, they are not restricted airspace. Air Force pilots are quick to point out that civilian and military aircraft have equal rights to the airspace even when the airspace is active. "It's see and avoid," Vic repeatedly stated with a shake of his head. "Even though it's legal, it doesn't make it smart."
Vic and his fellow pilots don't try to mask their incredulity to what they see as the enormous safety risks that simultaneous military and civilian operations can create in a hot MOA. From my back-seat vantage point, where all I had to do was watch, listen, and accurately barf into my little white bag, I became acutely aware that this type of flying is enormously demanding and dangerous without including the potential aerial landmines of GA aircraft. One Langley pilot said he was convinced that the vast majority of GA pilots just don't care if MOAs are hot. However, according to AOPA surveys, at least 73 percent of the members say they will divert around MOA airspace if they're unable to learn if it is hot or cold. In fact, the inability to get information regarding the status of special-use airspace is seen as one of the biggest concerns for the GA community. With the upsurge in military training since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the problem has grown. Thankfully, because of AOPA's education and persistence, progress is being made as the military has come to understand GA concerns. Recently, the controlling agency frequencies for each slice of airspace have started appearing on new charts. Hopefully this will give GA pilots a direct link to current, real-time information. The FAA has even begun a new Web site (http://sua.faa.gov/atcaaSplash.jsp) to help notify all pilots when areas across the country are hot and when others should be (see "Consulting the AP/1B," page 75).
Whether they're flying in a MOA or along an MTR, some GA pilots assume that military pilots always see them on radar. That's a huge assumption. A busted radar is not a go/no-go decision for many missions. In fact, during our 20 minutes at Farmville, the wingman's radar was acting up and never displayed either of the two GA aircraft that flew through the MOA. Further clouding the matter is that the on-board radar is not designed to look for GA aircraft. The algorithms that control what displays on radar are written to see larger, faster-moving targets. It's entirely possible that the radar may see a GA aircraft, but not display it because of the "Ground Moving Target Inhibitor," a setting on the radar designed to filter out ground clutter. If a target is slow enough, the radar thinks it's a car or truck and won't display it.
There's also the matter of not having enough of a radar return in the first place. Gliders, Piper Cubs, and other small aircraft may not have enough metal in them to even return a signal. And if they do return, their position in relation to the radar may further reduce what little signal they have. Which takes us back to "see and avoid."
Back on the ground at Langley, Vic is at a dry-erase board with a fistful of multicolored markers. Using different colors to represent aircraft, pilot visual coverage, radar coverage, and flight paths, he sketches out a spaghetti of colored lines to diagram tactical turns. As part of the discussion, Vic stresses the importance of knowing where your wingman is at all times. It wasn't too long ago that a wingman looked down to adjust his radar during a four-ship turn and lost sight of his lead. When he looked up, he misidentified another aircraft as his lead. The ensuing collision killed the lead pilot and both aircraft were lost.
At 480 knots, an aircraft covers 8 miles a minute or 1 mile every 7.5 seconds, says Vic. With a GA aircraft crossing Vic's flight path at two miles, a distance that he considers realistic for sighting another aircraft visually in the typical mid-Atlantic haze, that gives a maximum of 15 seconds before the sky begins to rain twisted aluminum. In those 15 seconds, the GA pilot should hope that Vic isn't distracted by reading a chart, adjusting his radar, making a radio change, or any number of things. "Do the math," says Vic. "That's a short time to die."
Unfortunately for the GA pilot, his chances of seeing a military aircraft closing in on him aren't very high. Combat aircraft are deliberately painted to make them hard to see, their flight tactics are meant to make them difficult to spot, and the visibility from GA aircraft is often poor compared to that out of a military canopy. While admitting there is no way to know it for a fact, Vic and his fellow pilots are convinced that few GA pilots ever know that they the military are nearby.
If you spot a military aircraft at your altitude and suspect he is unaware of your presence, some suggest raising your wing to make yourself more visible. If you have enough altitude, Vic suggests you make like a bird and descend. At the speeds the military flies, you're essentially motionless to them and you're not going to outrun or outclimb them. Also, if you see one fast target moving across your windshield, a collision threat most likely still exists because combat aircraft almost never fly solo. Formations of four to eight aircraft are common, and GA pilots have been surprised to find themselves bracketed right, left, top, and bottom by passing aircraft. The military pilot's reaction, if he does spot you, should be reflexive training, and most likely he'll instinctively "climb to cope." He'll convert airspeed to altitude to give himself time to determine what is happening and what his options are. The reduced speed and higher altitude give him time to fix problems and improve his chances for a successful ejection. Last year, an F-15E on VR1752 crossed paths with a vulture at 700 feet agl near Callaway, Virginia. The bird went down the right intake and while being converted to sausage it destroyed the engine. The engine caught fire, turbine blades went flying like shrapnel, electrical and hydraulic lines were cut, and the Eagle started slowly rolling out of control to the right. After riding through a complete roll, the crew was able to safely eject partly because the pilot was able to convert airspeed to altitude.
While MOAs are clearly marked on sectionals, the thin gray lines marking MTRs can be somewhat misleading. The gray lines supposedly indicate the centerline of the route, but aircraft can be anywhere within the corridor that the line helps define. Muddying the waters, the charts don't show the multiple alternate entry and exit points and corridors that may accompany a route, nor do they indicate that the centerline is frequently well away from the center of the route corridor. For instance, VR100 in New Mexico shows one route segment to be five nautical miles right and three nm left of the centerline. Another segment of the same route is listed as two nm right and 28 nm left. Most routes, however, tend to be between three and five nm on either side of the centerline. Like MOAs, they ought to be avoided when they are hot. If you plan to fly in an MTR, the military emphatically urges you to contact a flight service station or the controlling agency to learn if the route will be hot. They'd also like you to know the route's location and what air bases are in your area so you'll know where to look and what aircraft to look for.
Unfortunately some GA pilots, like Al Carpenter, are caught between a rock and a hard place. His airfield lies within five nautical miles of the centerlines for five busy MTRs. Two of those centerlines are a mile or less away from his airfield. "If I didn't fly when it was hot," complains this former Navy fighter pilot and multiyear guest at the Hanoi Hilton, "I would never fly!" Even though Carpenter has had jets at pattern altitude, he doesn't consider them to be a major problem. Just "keep your head up and on a swivel" and assume all routes are always hot. After all, he says, "You are never relieved of your responsibility to see and avoid."
Right or wrong, it appears many military pilots are convinced that a large segment of the GA population is reckless when it comes to flying in hot, special-use airspace. While studies and anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise, it's plain from my 20 minutes over Farmsville (with two GA aircraft going through the MOA) that there's reason for their belief. While wrapping up this story, I sent out an e-mail to some of my flying buddies asking about their experiences. Leo Callahan, a former Air Force pilot who now flies GA, wrote back saying, "If the MOA is active, I don't fly there. If I cannot contact the controlling agency, I don't fly there. I spent many hours flying in MOAs during my Air Force career and I have no intentions of playing with F-15s, A-10s, or any other high-performance machines. It could ruin everyone's day."
Whether through mistake, need, or defiance, GA pilots will continue to fly in hot special-use airspace, a fact that doesn't sit well with the military. In some instances, these flights are essentially unavoidable. For the vast majority of us, they're not. When this airspace is hot, it's best that GA pilots avoid it for the simple reason that we'd all like to live to fly another day. As CFI Becky Luther says, "there are no rules to stop them, only common sense."
Tim Wright is a pilot and freelance writer and photographer living in Richmond.
Special-use airspace. Special-use airspace (SUA) is airspace that is reserved for flight operations that are not in a normal civilian category. The aircraft participating in SUA activities are separated from other controlled traffic by the boundaries of SUA. In some cases, nonparticipating aircraft may enter SUA, but have limitations imposed on their operations. Generally SUA is used for military activity, but civilians use such airspace to test new aircraft. The space program is also a large user of SUA. SUA includes prohibited, warning, and restricted airspace along with military operations areas and alert areas. IFR traffic will be kept clear of these areas when they are active. VFR traffic may enter MOAs and alert areas, even while active.
Restricted airspace. Restricted airspace is special-use airspace that is reserved for hazardous activities by aircraft or ground participants. These include weapons firings, airdrop operations, and any such operation that is considered hazardous to the safety of nonparticipants. VFR and IFR nonparticipating traffic may not enter this airspace, while it is active because of great risk (see "Pilot Briefing: Space Zone," page 57).
Military operations area. A military operations area (MOA) is airspace reserved for special operations that require the separation of participating aircraft from nonparticipating IFR traffic. VFR traffic may transit the MOA at VFR hemispheric altitudes, even if the MOA is active, but must be aware of the risk of a midair collision. A MOA is to military and government participants as a VFR practice or airwork area is to civilians. However, the military participants have much greater performance capabilities. Participating aircraft in a MOA may be flying in multiship formations, at high speeds just short of supersonic, and at climb and descent rates in excess of 15,000 feet per minute. Participating aircraft are not restricted to fly hemispheric altitudes, nor are they restricted to a maximum airspeed when operating below 10,000 feet msl, unlike civilian pilots. Nonparticipating aircraft must follow VFR specifications in the FARs.
Military training route. Military training routes (MTR) were developed for use by the military for the purpose of conducting low-altitude, high-speed training. The routes above 1,500 feet agl are to be flown, to the maximum extent possible, under IFR. The routes at 1,500 feet agl and below are to be flown under VFR. MTRs are established below 10,000 feet msl for operations at speeds in excess of 250 knots. However, route segments may be defined at higher altitudes for purposes of route continuity. For example, route segment altitudes may be defined for descent, climbout, and mountainous terrain. Julie Summers Walker
The AOPA Air Safety Foundation has partnered with the Department of Defense (DOD) and the U.S. Air Force to bring general aviation pilots a new online course, "Mission: Possible: Navigating Today's Special Use Airspace." The course is divided into three sections: a special-use airspace (SUA) tutorial and review; information on lights-out training; and a flight-planning scenario. The SUA tutorial takes pilots through the basics of what constitutes special airspace, reviewing the definitions and applications of restricted airspace, military operations areas (MOAs), and military training routes (MTRs). (See "Defining Airspace," page 73.) Of great importance is the information on the military's lights-out training. Military pilots use night-vision goggles (NVGs), which amplify small amounts of existing light, essentially turning night into day for combat missions. This allows military aircraft to fly without external lights on, avoiding detection by enemy forces on the ground and in the air and making night emergencies more manageable. For training purposes, the military will now be using select MOAs in addition to restricted and warning areas for the lights-out program. Since this initiative affects GA pilots many who may regularly fly in MOAs throughout the country the military is charged with civilian training. Through interactive graphics, video, and audio, the "Mission: Possible" course prepares GA pilots for this new wrinkle in the see-and-avoid scenario. The unique partnership between ASF, the DOD, and the U.S. Air Force is the first of its kind, and a win-win situation for everyone in the night sky. JSW
AOPA ASF's "Mission: Possible" course is available online (www.aopa.org/asf/online_courses/mission_possible/).
Consulting the AP/1B
The AP/1B is a Department of Defense flight information publication* that is revised every 56 days. The AP/1B describes:
- MTR routes in detail (warnings include uncharted radio towers, small airstrips, ostrich and horse farms, bald-eagle nests, noise-sensitive areas, fish-spotting aircraft, and radio telescopes).
- Special Operating Procedures (warnings identify towns, neighborhoods, and individual houses to be avoided because of "congressional" or "presidential" interest in the peace and quiet of that location).
- SRs, or slow routes, for aircraft operating below 250 knots and between 250 feet and 1,500 feet agl.
- VRs, or visual routes, low-altitude MTRs used only when the cloud ceiling is 3,000 feet agl or higher and visibility exceeds five miles.
- IRs, or instrument routes, MTRs that are flown only under IFR regardless of weather conditions and may be in use when the weather is worse than "3,000 and five."
- ARs, or aerial refueling routes, areas where military tankers routinely refuel other military aircraft (in most cases above 10,000 feet).
- VRs or IRs charted with 3-digit route numbers (VR123) can include airspace from the surface up to (and sometimes above) 10,000 feet.
- VRs or IRs identified with 4-digit route numbers (VR3456) can extend from the surface to 1,500 feet agl. JSW
* According to a November 18, 2004, press release from the Department of Defense, as of October 1, 2005, the National Geospacial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) intends to remove flight information publications, including the AP/1B, from public sale and distribution.