Keep Out! (Part I)

Our national airspace system sure isn’t getting any less complicated, but any long-awaited rescue through increasingly available and ostensibly more accurate means of navigation seems instead to have come at the expense of positional awareness: i.e., we’re losing it! With all the exposure that has been given to airspace security, inadvertent entries into the prohibited airspace over Camp David, TFR-related intercepts, and threats of deadly force, it’s probably a good time to review the different types of Special Use Airspace, or SUA. This week, we’ll look at two of them: prohibited and restricted airspace.

The spice of life: First, from a pilot’s perspective, there are about a half-dozen types of “formally defined” SUA; prohibited and restricted airspace are just two of them. What is SUA? It’s any airspace of defined dimensions, having a base and (in most instances) a ceiling altitude wherein activities must be confined because of their nature, or wherein limitations may be imposed upon aircraft operations that are not a part of those activities. (There is always going to be a base, by the way, but not always a ceiling: the area to the east of the Kennedy Space Center has no upper limit.) These six types of special use airspace are, alphabetically:

  1. Alert Area – having a high volume of pilot training activity.
  2. Controlled Firing Area – activities conducted under controlled conditions to eliminate hazards to nonparticipating aircraft (and the only SUA not depicted on aeronautical charts)
  3. Military Operations Area – airspace established to separate certain military activities from IFR traffic and identify for VFR traffic where these activities are conducted
  4. Prohibited Area – designated airspace within which the flight of aircraft is prohibited
  5. Restricted Area – airspace within which the flight of aircraft, while not prohibited, is subject to restriction (IFR/VFR operations may be authorized by the controlling facility when not in use)
  6. Warning Area – may contain hazards to nonparticipating aircraft in international airspace

Special use airspace (except CFA’s) are charted on VFR and IFR charts and descriptions include hours of operation, altitudes, and the controlling agency. From a bureaucrat’s viewpoint, there are basically two types of SUA: regulatory (in the sense of rulemaking) and non-regulatory. Both Prohibited Areas and Restricted Areas (as well as Class A, B, C, D, and E airspace) are regulatory. The first two of these are implemented by 14 CFR Part 73, but MOAs, Warning Areas, Alert Areas, and CFAs are non-regulatory.

So show me: Just how many of these suckers are there, and where are they, you ask? Well, here’s a picture that’s worth a thousand words. Again, starting alphabetically from the top, left-to-right, in three rows of two each, you can get a rough idea as to how many, and where they are in the Continental US. There aren’t that many Alert Areas; CFAs of course aren’t charted; there are a very large number of MOAs; only a few separate Prohibited Areas; quite a few Restricted Areas; and a fair number of Warning Areas (all offshore).

On the side: In addition, Military Training Routes certainly qualify as special use, although they aren’t officially considered SUA. (Anyone in uniform who might cross my path at 400 knots gets my attention, and we’ll look at them in detail next time.) There are also two other types. If you fly within an Air Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ, which is usually along coastal waters, you get to file a flight plan that isn’t VFR or IFR, but Defense VFR, or DVFR. And you need to file periodic position reports and identify yourself before returning to or entering domestic airspace, or else you might have a new wingman. (In Alaska they’re known as Distant Early Warning Identification Zones (or by the slightly humorous acronym DEWIZ).

Okay, back to the Prez: First, let’s talk about the dreaded Prohibited Area. Although over half of the currently ten separate parcels of fixed and charted prohibited airspace are presidential in some way, not all are. (There’s the Pantex nuclear assembly plant in Amarillo, Texas, home of P-47, and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota, where you’d find P-204, P-205, & P-206.) Of those that are however, there are two in downtown Washington DC, plus Camp David, President Bush’s Texas ranch, Kennebunkport ME, and Mt. Vernon. (As you might infer, not only might prohibited airspace apply to a president no longer in office, but also to one who is no longer alive, although like Key Biscayne and San Clemente, they can come and go. Oh and speaking of come and go, there is a moving four nautical mile radius prohibited area around Air Force One (or Marine One) whenever and wherever the President is airborne.

Crime and Punishment: What happens if you fly into one of the charted ones, say P-56 around the White House, Capital Building, and (ironically) the Air and Space Museum? (I hasten to add that this is now highly unlikely due to SFAR 94 and the “15-mile ring” around Washington, but do note that in the one-year period after September 11, 2001, there have been about 100 incursions involving P-40, or Camp David. For argument’s sake, though, let’s say you did bust P-56.) Well, the controllers at Washington National-I refuse to say Reagan-fill out a Pilot Deviation Report describing the incident, as well as pilot qualifications and personal information. Accompanying this is a tape of any conversation the pilot had with ATC, and a radar trajectory plot. These are all sent to the local FSDO, which would initiate any remedial action. Although the Secret Service doesn’t work with them, besides a meeting with a FSDO inspector, the pilot should also expect one with the Secret Service (which actually now “owns” this airspace, as of March, 1999). Of about 100 pilots who have busted P-56 during the last 10 years, most got a warning letter. One was fined $1000, and several had their licenses suspended for up to 120 days.

As you probably know, it’s depicted differently depending on which type of chart you use. Here is how the gummint does it: VFR on the left; IFR on the right. You’ll notice that they use stippled blue borders for prohibited, restricted, alert, and warning areas, but magenta for MOAs. (Jeppesen uses magenta filled cross-hatching for Prohibited Areas, as shown at the lower right.)

Someone is sure to point out that any Temporary Flight Restriction, which we’d hear about via a NOTAM, can invoke a prohibited area, at any time, and anywhere, and that’s true. If President Bush threw the opening pitch in Yankee Stadium, you can bet there would be one in place in the Bronx that day.

Restricted Areas: This makes for a nice segue into the second most common SUA (and the other type of “regulatory” SUA): the Restricted Area. They denote the existence of unusual, often invisible, hazards to aircraft such as artillery firing, aerial gunnery, or guided missiles. (These invisible hazards aren’t always moving, by the way, some examples of which are the tall cylinders of restricted airspace around several tethered balloons near our southern borders.) Like the others (except for MOAs) they are marked on VFR charts by blue “combed” boundaries. But just like the MOA, unauthorized entry can also be bad for your health, although if it’s not active and has been released to the FAA, ATC will allow IFR flights to use the airspace without any specific clearance through it. (If a particular area wasn’t “hot,” VFR flights may proceed at will also, hopefully with the latest status information!) An identifying number (such as R-4009, below) will be listed near or within the area. A listing on the bottom of the aeronautical chart identifies the area by number, and indicates the location of the area, the altitude limits of the space, times of use, and the name of the controlling agency. (Unlike the Prohibited Area, Restricted Areas usually have specific hours of operation, with this one being the exception.)

This particular Restricted Area makes for an interesting transition from the discussaion of Prohibited Areas for two reasons. First, it sits atop P-40, and second, there is a hidden trap that has caught many an unwary pilot. Did you notice how a Victor Airway (V268) goes right through it? If you looked on an IFR chart you’d see that the Minimum Enroute Altitude (MEA) for V268 is 5000 feet MSL. Well, R-4009 extends from 5000 feet up to and including 12,500 feet. (A VFR pilot wouldn’t even see the MEA on his chart.) First, just because V268 goes through R-4009 doesn’t mean you can automatically go through it whenever you want. Second, a VFR pilot on V268 below 5000 feet would actually be inside P-40, and even if an IFR pilot did legally traverse R-4009 along V268, say if he flew East right at 5000 feet, it wouldn’t take much to get him in hot water, as you might imagine. So what happens to you if you fly into one of these? It’s pretty much the same due process thing (without the Secret Service). Radar data, records of any ATC interaction, Pilot Deviation Reports and other FAA “8020” forms will follow, probably along with at least a letter of warning, if not remedial training.

Stay tuned for some more SUA Fun Facts To Know and Tell, because next time, we’ll look at the four non-regulatory types of SUA: Military Operations Areas, Alert Areas, Warning Areas, and Controlled Firing Areas, as well as some Fun Facts about Military Training Routes.


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