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Blackout dates apply

Military nighttime operations and the GA pilot

Blackout dates are an annoyance to commercial air travelers. Now a new and different kind of blackout could become a problem for general aviation pilots. It's the military's "Lights Out" training happening in select military operations areas (MOAs), allowing high-speed military aircraft to fly at night without lights.

That's right, high-speed military aircraft operating in the dark of night, without lights. Legally. And this, just as you were teaching your students that they have every right to fly in MOAs, even when they're hot.

The military has been granted an exemption from FAR 91.209 (a)(1), which states that all aircraft must have position lights on from sunset to sunrise. This allows the military to operate incognito at night in some MOAs. Lights-out training has been conducted for years in restricted and warning areas, but GA pilots rarely, if ever, flew in that airspace. Now they have our attention.

Granted, lights-out exercises aren't just for fun. Comparisons to similar automobile antics aside, you won't find fighter pilots zooming around at night, taking bets on who'll be the first "chicken" to turn on their lights. Lights-out training is necessary to allow pilots to work with a snazzy piece of equipment called night vision goggles, or NVGs. NVGs not only help Air Force pilots to avoid detection, but they also help to make night emergencies much more manageable because of the enhanced situational awareness. NVGs work by taking the very small amount of available light at night and amplifying it so pilots can literally "see in the dark." If there is too much light available (including their own aircraft lighting) the view through the NVGs washes out, which can be very disorienting to the pilots.

No problem, you say. After all, these guys are pros. They won't run me over, right? The only problem is the "see and avoid" rule of FAR 91.113(b), which states, "When weather conditions permit...vigilance shall be maintained by each person...so as to see and avoid other aircraft." We can't let all the responsibility rest with the military.

Fortunately for us, the military does not have the luxury of commencing lights-out training whenever the notion arises. They are required to inform GA pilots in advance via the notice to airmen (notam) system. Once the maneuvers have started, you can expect to find multiple military aircraft practicing tactical maneuvers at high speeds. A typical large-force training exercise includes maneuvers such as the "exploding cantaloupe" and the somewhat less-harmful-sounding "spaghetti noodle patterns."

What happens when we GA pilots mosey through this mix of supersonic metal? Whenever nonparticipating (in other words, civilian) VFR traffic enters a MOA during lights-out training -- regardless of whether the traffic is on a flight plan or receiving radar traffic advisories -- the military will suspend or terminate the exercise. Sometimes they can set a floor around 1,000 feet above the traffic and continue their exercise, or they simply hold while we leisurely pass through at 100 kt or so, possibly sending some aircraft home early because of diminished fuel reserves. Other times they call it a night.

IFR flights usually get routed around a hot MOA because ATC is required to provide separation -- a tough thing to do when maneuvering jets are in the mix.

I thought about this delicate balance of access versus courtesy. MOAs are not restricted, but how many times has a GA pilot unknowingly suspended or terminated a costly military training exercise? If a MOA is cold, I'm going through every time. However, if I find out a MOA will be hot for my next night flight (and it doesn't add too much time to my trip) I've resolved to go around it.

Basic safety is another consideration. I'm not going to assert my FAA-given right to be in a MOA whenever I see fit and then end up in a midair collision. The ultimate goal is to avoid a close encounter of the life-threatening kind. It all boils down to the fact that the military jets have ejection seats, and unless you have one heck of a supplemental type certificate, you don't.

For operations in a MOA, the AOPA Air Safety Foundation recommends that pilots turn to the Aeronautical Information Manual's current guidelines. Consider it a two-step to avoid a misstep:

  1. During preflight, contact any FSS within 100 miles of the area to obtain accurate information about the MOA's hours of operation.
  2. Before you enter an active MOA, contact the controlling agency for traffic advisories.

You may know how to determine the status of a MOA, but do your students? Ask them to locate a MOA on a sectional chart, determine its status from Flight Service, and find controlling agency frequencies on a sectional chart. While you're at it, introduce them to the new lights-out notams.

At this time, there's no mention of lights-out procedures in the AIM, so don't expect your students to figure out this one by hitting the books. In this case, a far better strategy is to jump online. ASF has partnered with the Department of Defense and the U.S. Air Force to bring GA pilots a new online course, Mission: Possible, Navigating Today's Special Use Airspace. This free online course was scheduled to debut in late August. It's a great way to get up to speed on lights-out operations, plus it serves as safety seminar credit for the FAA Wings program.

Take the time to learn about this new challenge. Even though blackout dates apply, you can still have a great trip.

Jennifer Storm is a CFII and MEI, and is a safety program developer for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.

By Jennifer Storm

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