Virtually all VFR pilots have at one point or another encountered some form of special use airspace (SUA), be it military operations areas (MOAs), restricted areas, military training routes, or a number of other types. In most cases, the SUA can be easily identified and planned for or avoided if necessary.
Particularly for those operating aircraft near military bases, however, there is another form of airspace used by the military that is virtually unknown to the general aviation community and is not even technically classified as SUA. These areas are called Low Altitude Tactical Navigation areas or LATNs. They are not mentioned in the Aeronautical Information Manual, are not charted, are not mentioned in notams, and are largely unknown, even to FAA controllers. No coordination between the military and the FAA is required for them and you can only read about these areas in U.S. Air Force internal documents.
Although a LATN area may appear to be a mystery to some pilots, it is actually defined airspace that does not restrict GA and that can only be utilized by military aircraft following an assessment of the local area that determines whether the military VFR flights will have a significant impact on civil aviation. (While rare, a formal environmental assessment, including opportunity for public comment, can follow that local assessment.)
The key is that military aircraft operating in LATNs must adhere to the federal aviation regulations and the same VFR weather and speed restrictions as civilian pilots. This means no aggressive military maneuvering like you might see in a MOA. They are, quite simply, VFR traffic that happens to be military.
That said, LATNs do have an impact and still present some level of risk, since aircraft operating in them can be flying at low altitudes (typically between 500 and 1,500 feet) and at relatively high speed—up to 250 knots. Additionally, a low-flying Fairchild Republic A–10 or Lockheed Martin C–130 would likely take the average, unsuspecting GA pilot by surprise.
This can especially be a concern for civilian pilots conducting crop-dusting, aerial firefighting, helicopter, and other low-level operations. Hot air balloons, glider operations, unmanned aircraft system operations, and other aviation activities that occur off airport can also be affected.
LATNs can be established anywhere in U.S. airspace, can be used (or not used) on a daily basis, and typically cover a fairly large area. However, they are usually located near major military training complexes, giving pilots at least some clue as to where to expect them.
If you are concerned about encountering military aircraft in these areas, or want more information on an encounter you have had, pilots (or anyone else for that matter) can inquire with the public affairs office at the nearest military base. In fact, if you operate an aircraft at low altitude in the same region as a base, AOPA recommends proactively reaching out for more information. Usually, the public affairs contact information is readily available on each base’s website and most bases will share information about LATNs if asked. It is also a good idea to ask about the wing’s Mid-Air Collision Avoidance program, which provides valuable information about their flying operations.
Although there is no required coordination with the FAA, an environmental assessment and accompanying documentation (in accordance with 32 CFR Part 989, Environmental Impact Analysis Process (EIAP)), is required to create a LATN. This usually results in public engagement in the form of draft and final environmental assessments being published.
The vast majority of Department of Defense officials are eager to be good neighbors and will do their best to make accommodations if their flights may be an issue. For example, military units regularly work with farmers who have fields needing aerial treatment, or who have cattle giving birth, during certain times of the year. When they are made aware, pilots will make sure to avoid those areas during those times.
As a side note, contacting a base’s public affairs office with any related aviation concerns is welcomed—answering questions from the public is why these offices exist.
One last twist: Many of these military aircraft are operating under an FAA exemption (provided via a change to FAR 91.225(f)(1) in 2019) that allows for “sensitive government mission[s]” to fly without using ADS-B Out. For the majority of GA pilots using automation in the cockpit, and for the many that rely on ADS-B for collision avoidance, this and the presence of LATNs should serve as another reminder to always keep your eyes outside the cockpit, particularly when flying VFR near military bases.
—By Jim McClay, AOPA director of airspace, air traffic, and security