When I took the check ride for my Private Pilot certificate, I sat in a conference room at a little airport in South Carolina with the FAA examiner. Before getting in the plane for my flight test, I had to pass an oral exam. For about an hour, he got to pick my brain and test me on the various knowledge areas of being a Private Pilot. One exercise he ran me through was to pull out a sectional chart (a paper one – we had no iPads then) and lay it out on the table. He would reach out and drop his finger on a place on the map and ask, “if I were right here at 3000 feet, what kind of airspace would I be in?” I would answer. “Ok, now how about here at the surface.” Again I would answer. “And here at 10,000 feet?” The point of the exercise was to see if I could properly visualize the airspace. Reading information from a chart is one thing, but you can’t just read airspace off a chart without some key concepts laid out. If you read Airspace 101, you have a basic understanding of the various classes of airspace. But what if I pointed to the map and asked, “what sort of hazards might you expect to find in this airspace?” Beyond the class A-G airspace that make up the basic system, there are special use airspace areas. These areas range from no-fly zones to areas of military aircraft training to areas where missiles are being fired (you might want to pay special attention if misses are being fired). I use the acronym MCPRAWN to remember the various special use airspace classifications. Let’s look at each one and break down if you are able to fly an airplane or drone there.

Military Operations Area (MOA)
When I see a MOA, I’m reminded of the scene from Top Gun when Maverick and Goose are flying a practice dogfight with Jester. They were all over the place, at high speeds, maneuvering abruptly.  A MOA an area like that where military aircraft are out and about. Let’s just hope Maverick doesn’t drop below the hard deck.

Can you fly there? Yes, but remain extremely aware of your surroundings. Low, fast, abrupt maneuvers in the area are possible and we wouldn’t want you to spill your coffee.

Some Military Operations Areas In Georgia

The magenta hatch marks outline these various Military Operations Areas, named “Bulldog,” likely because of their proximity to the University of Georgia.

 

Controlled Firing Area
This one is a little more of a mystery because you usually won’t see it on a chart. As you can imagine, the activities in this airspace could be a hazard. How do you know where they are? Well, you don’t. Not from a sectional chart, at least. Radar and spotters are used to identify any aircraft flying into the area, and the activity is stopped. It reminds me of playing baseball in the neighborhood streets growing up. When a car approaches, somebody yelled “CAR!” and we would stop until it passes. I suppose a Controlled Firing Area is similar, except I picture somebody with a missile launcher putting down the weapon in dismay as somebody yells “PLANE!”

Can you fly there? Yes.  You likely won’t know where they are in the first place and the activity stops when you are near.

A Rare Charted Controlled Firing Area In Northern Florida

This chart of northern Florida shows a box that informs us of “special military activity.”  My friend Jason Schappert over at MZeroA has confirmed this rarely charted Controlled Firing Area to be missile firing from the Gulf of Mexico.

 

Prohibited Area
These are permanent areas of airspace where the highest levels of security are constantly needed. Camp David. The Pantex Nuclear Plant. The White House.  These areas probably look pretty cool from the air, but you’ll want to stay clear of them in the sky.

Can you fly there? Nope. It’s as simple as that. Drones and airplanes alike are simply not allowed in them. Well, unless you are flying Air Force One.

A Prohibited Area In Florida

Prohibited Area P-50 is near St. Mary’s airport on the southern coast of Georgia.  It is marked with blue hatch marks and protects the airspace over a naval submarine base.

 

Restricted Area
You’ll usually notice a Restricted Area surrounded by or at the heart of Military Operations Areas. This is where active hazards can be. Where a MOA warns you of activity possible, a Restricted Area has to be inactive to fly in it.  I can only imagine this is where the military pilots learn to fire their weapons. “I’m too close for missiles – switching to guns.”

Can you fly there? Yes, but only with permission from Air Traffic Control or if the area is confirmed to be “cold,” or inactive. The times and altitudes of activity can be found on the supplement information of the sectional chart.

A Restricted Area at the heart of a Military Operations Area

Restricted airspace R-3004is shown with blue hatch marks and may not be entered unless given permission by ATC or the area is verified inactive or “cold.”

 

Alert Area
Some areas make great practice areas, perhaps for their proximity to an airport or the forgiving terrain below. In my training, I often flew to the “South Practice Area” south of Athens, GA (KAHN). This area was away from the airport and over lots of nice open fields. While my practice area was good and remote, many of these areas have a whole bunch of airplanes practicing or otherwise using the area. Alert areas are a way of giving you the heads up (or alert) that there’s probably a lot going on there.

Can you fly there? Yes, but be aware of what is happening there and be on the lookout based on the nature of that activity.

An Alert Area of extensive flight operations

Alert Area A-685, marked by magenta hatch marks, encircles a heavily used practice area.  It’s noted with “extensive low altitude rotary and fixed wing aircraft training operations.”  Keep your eyes peeled.

 

Warning Area
These are areas off the coast of the ocean that may have some activity but not much radar coverage. I can only imagine that the YouTube videos of a fighter jet breaking the sound barrier near an aircraft carrier happened in a warning area. The edges of the sectional chart will show the altitudes and times that the area is being used. Think of these sort of an off-coast Military Operations Area.

Can you fly there? Yes, but be aware of your surroundings and the potential lack of good radar coverage. And sonic booms.

Many of the areas off the coast are covered in Warning Areas like W-74, the one shown here with the blue hatch marks.

 

National Security Area (Temporary Flight Restriction)
This is the laptop version of a Prohibited Area. It can be unplugged and taken somewhere else. When the president flies, so does a Temporary Flight Restriction around him. Sporting events will also usually have a TFR around them as well. Calling Flight Service before a flight is a great way to get a final check of any TFR’s in your route of flight, as I recently found out before a flight back home from Nashville. Due to some police incident on the ground, a TFR had popped up just before my scheduled flight.

Can you fly there? Not usually. The Presidential TFR’s are sacred fortresses, and most TFR’s are similarly off limits. There are situations where an airplane with a squawk code talking to ATC can fly through certain ones, but drone pilots may not operate in one.  Much like a Prohibited Area, you’ll want to steer clear of them until they are packed up and taken back home.

A Temporary Flight Restriction around the Lake Lure Wildfires

The darker circle shows a TFR from the ground to 8000 feet near Lake Lure, North Carolina, during the wildfires in late 2016.  No flights, including drones, can fly in a TFR, even though it was tempting to do so.

 

Conclusion
Whether you are an airplane pilot or a drone pilot, special use airspace is important to know and comply with. Not only is it important to be safe, but operating in some of this airspace can lead to some regrettable consequences. You don’t want to be the guy on the news who flies a drone over a Prohibited Area or the pilot who busts a presidential TFR and has a fighter jet escort. Remember to go beyond just identifying them on a map, though. Be aware of where YOU are in relation to them, whether you use a paper map and landmarks or electronic charts or apps. And watch out for those missiles.

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6 Comments

  1. T. Reid

    Great info and acronym. I’m just starting out on the journey to get my PPL and it’s definitely overwhelming at times. This really helped break this info down for me. Thanks!!

    Reply
    • Clay

      Best of luck on your training! It seems overwhelming now, but keep at it. It’ll all come together and make sense. I’d recommend getting your written out of the way as soon as you can – it gives you a great foundation to learn. If you haven’t picked a ground school, I highly recommend MZeroA.com. Tell Jason I sent you!

      Reply
  2. John

    You had better continually check the times if there is a TFR because of VIP movement. Those often have last minute time changes.

    Years ago I was flying back to KFFC the morning that president Bush was arriving in ATL. I had the TFR printed and with me in the plane. I got VFR flight following because of hazy weather.

    I got within 30 miles of my destination when ATC told me to make a 180. After I turned they asked “state intentions”. I replied that I intended to land at KFFC. They answered with a very terse “unable”, then they repeated “state intentions”. I was then instructed to land at the nearest airport and call them.

    When I called, they said that Air Force One had arrived earlier than planned. I asked what would have happened had I simply flown VFR without flight following? My destination was an uncontrolled airport. I would have landed before the time posted in the TFR. I never got a straight answer.

    I was now stranded near my destination. It was still before the TFR. They eventually gave me a squawk code after I verified my identity on the phone and let me proceed.

    Lesson learned, if there is a TFR due to Air Force One, be in touch with ATC to stay out of trouble.

    Reply
    • Clay

      Wow, that’s intense, John! I’ve always wondered what happens when you have to call after a violation. Glad to hear it worked out as well as it could.

      Reply
  3. Steve

    Restricted Areas are usually not present over nuclear power plants, as you stated. But, you are warned not to loiter over them and to maintain a proper VFR altitude. Not flying directly over them is the best idea.

    Reply
    • Clay

      Steve, that’s an excellent point, and thanks for mentioning that! You are correct that nuclear power plants don’t typically have prohibited airspace. I clarified in the Prohibited Area section by using the example of the Pantex Plant, a nuclear weapons facility near KAMA in Amarillo Texas. It’s protected by Prohibited Area P-47. Your point is a good one to keep your distance either way. Thanks for reading and contributing!

      Reply

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