Space Shuttle Airspace

When an unauthorized airplane interrupts a Space Shuttle launch the results can be dangerous and expensive — both to NASA and the pilot — but the occurrence isn’t as uncommon as you might think.

The Federal Aviation Regulations have a special section set aside to protect pilots and space flight crews. The law is 91.143 — Flight Limitations in the Proximity of Space Flight Operations: “No person may operate any aircraft of United States registry, or pilot any aircraft under the authority of an airman certificate issued by the FAA within areas designated in a NOTAM for space flight operations except when authorized by ATC, or operated under the control of the Department of Defense Manager for Space Transportation System Contingency Support Operations.

Translation: Don’t come anywhere near a Space Shuttle launch!

» View Figure 1 Chart Example

Take a look at the chart example of the Kennedy Space Center. The NASA launch site is a maze of Restricted and Warning Areas. The darker blue tinted area is the “91.143 Airspace.” Inside this area is a caution note that warns pilots that when these Restricted and Warning Areas are “hot” that they: “may contain flying rockets and falling debris.” The airspace boundaries are also very unique. The vertical airspace listed in the note “Kennedy Space Center 91.143 Space Operations” says surface to unlimited. Airspace that has no upper limit is a corridor to space!

Note: The hazard to pilots is the same in either a Restricted Area or a Warning Area — but a Warning Area is out over international waters so therefore no country can claim and then restrict the airspace. A country can however “warn” pilots of the danger and hope they stay away for their own safety.

Think again. There have been airspace violations of the Space Flight corridor during shuttle launches by small airplanes — once delaying a launch and costing millions to recycle the launch sequence. In most cases the pilots involved were aware that a shuttle launch operation was underway, but were not skilled enough at chart reading and/or in common sense to remain clear.

Real World Example #1
One pilot, after being cited for the Restricted Area violation wrote this to the Aviation Safety Reporting System: “I am accused of having flown into the KSC restricted area, though I believe that I have not. Having taken all information and precautions to stay out of the Restricted Area. If it was finally demonstrated that I flew in it, I suspect that this occurred because the Restricted Area was not properly defined to a fair level of understanding.

The pilot seems to be claiming that the airspace depicted on the chart was not clear enough for him to understand — this is the primary reason for learning how to “see” airspace as it really is by properly interpreting the chart.

This pilot went on to say, “I landed at Orlando International. In examining my chart under sufficient light, I can now detect a slight — very slight — difference in the shading of R2921 and R2930, although the subtle difference was not detectable in my aircraft. I strongly feel that this special use airspace is very poorly depicted on the chart and should be more clearly defined to avoid this type of confusion in the future.” Then in a follow-up telephone call the pilot stated that he called the FAA after the incident to clarify the situation and learned of an airspace change that was not on his older chart.

Not only had he violated the launch airspace and had problems reading the chart, but also he was flying with an obsolete chart.

Real World Example #2
Here is yet another pilot who was later cited for careless and reckless operations of an aircraft. He took off to see the shuttle launch from the air and eventually turned off his transponder so he could hear an AM Radio: “I then began listening to a commercial radio I had brought to listen for the countdown for the launch. The AM radio was so effected by my transponder signal, which was on VFR 1200, that I turned the transponder off. At 30 seconds to go on the countdown, I turned to a heading of approximately 090 degrees to fill my windshield with the launch site. The shuttle launched and as it rose, I pulled back on the yoke to lift the nose and keep the shuttle in view as it rose upward. In just a few short seconds the shuttle was above my ability to track it without stalling so I broke off to my right and leveled off. After about 5 minutes, my wife who was riding as a passenger, advised me that there was an aircraft following us rather closely. Then the next thing I knew a tan twin-engine aircraft came below and to my left and cut across in front of me to the right. I told my wife that I must have made that pilot mad in some way.

The pilot in the other plane was mad all right — it was an FAA surveillance airplane. This pilot had switched off his transponder, then turned directly for the shuttle, and penetrated the Restricted Area by several miles during the launch.

Note: These events took place prior to September 11, 2001. Imagine what would have happened to a pilot who did this today, and what it might mean for the rest of us.

BOTTOM LINE: When flying near Restricted and Warning Areas look over the chart before the flight begins. Picture the airspace in three-dimensions … and show better judgment than these pilots did.