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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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