John Peltier

Does Special Use Airspace (SUAS) scare you? If you see a Restricted Area on the chart, will you always just avoid the restricted airspace because you don’t even want to think about dealing with getting a clearance through there?

Avoiding all types of Special Use Airspace because you don’t want to deal with the “hassle”, or don’t know how to deal with it, or you can’t even correctly identify them, can actually cause you more of a hassle in added flight time, fuel, and cost.

Knowing how to correctly identifying the different types of Special Use Airspace, their controlling agencies, and their restrictions will take a lot of intimidation out of flying.

The Different Types of Special Use Airspace

If you were to go to your commercial pilot check ride right now, would you be able to name all of the different types of SUAS and their restrictions?

Here’s a good mnemonic to remember them by: MCPRAWN – MOA, CFA, Prohibited, Restricted, Alert, Warning, NSA. Let’s take a look at each of these types of Special Use Airspace and figure out what you need to do to fly in them.

Military Operation Area (MOA)

An MOA is specifically set up to separate IFR traffic from military training traffic. However, this doesn’t mean that as a VFR pilot you’re exempt from acknowledging it. Activities in MOAs can include air-to-air intercepts, “dogfights”, and low altitude training. You don’t want to get in the middle of a dogfight! ATC clearance is not required for you to fly through an MOA.

MOAs have defined vertical and lateral limits – the lateral limits are depicted on the VFR Sectional and the vertical limits can be found in the margin of the sectional. In the same margin, you’ll find the ATC facility and frequency you can talk to before entering the MOA. Just ask them if it’s active. They’ll let you know if there’s any military traffic in there, and where, and then you can make your own judgment call about flying through it. FSS will know as well.

Here’s an example of the information found on the sectional.

Special Use Airspace MOA info on a sectional

Controlled Firing Area (CFA). What does a CFA look like on a VFR Sectional? Trick question – they’re not on there! You really shouldn’t have to worry about these areas while you’re flying. CFAs are generally used for small arms target practice or mortar practice. There are always spotters and/or radar that will detect you approaching the area. When they see you coming, they’ll stop all firing even though you’re most likely higher than any of their shells will reach.

Prohibited Area. A Prohibited Area is established for reasons of national security and you may never fly through one except for in emergencies where overflight cannot be safely avoided. With some prohibited areas, the dimensions start at the surface and as far as you’re concerned, they go up to infinity! However, the Special Use Airspace information in the margins of the Sectional charts contain the precise information for lateral and vertical limits, which vary depending on their location.

Prohibited Areas are identified on charts by numbers, such as “P-40”, which is the Prohibited Area over Washington, D.C.

Restricted. Flight through a Restricted Area is not completely prohibited, but doing so could be extremely hazardous to you! There may be dangerous military activities in restricted areas, like aerial gunnery or live bomb drops. You certainly don’t want to fly through that!

Fortunately, a Restricted Area is only “hot” when the users have it scheduled, which will only be during certain times of the day. You can find the status of Restricted Areas by referencing the margin of your VFR Sectional. Hours will be listed, as well as the ATC agency and frequency to contact for more details. Here’s an example:

Special Use Airspace Restricted Areas info on a sectional

Alert. An Alert Area is just as it sounds – when you fly through these areas, be on alert! You’ll usually find these areas where there’s a large concentration of military pilot training, parachuting, or glider activity. Alert areas are depicted on charts by either a hatched box or a Glider or Parachute icon. Alert areas are not regulated and therefore not under any ATC jurisdiction. Be extra vigilant when you fly through them – all parties are equally responsible for avoidance!

Here’s an example, with the “UA” indicating Unmanned Aerial activity near Fort Sumner.

Special Use Airspace Unmanned Aerial Activity on a sectional

Warning. A Warning Area, or sometimes called a “whiskey”, is only found offshore. They start three miles from the coast and extend outwards as depicted on the sectional. A Warning Area serves to warn pilots that there’s activity going on in there that may be hazardous to them if they’re not a part of it. Examples include air-to-air intercepts and naval exercises. An ATC clearance is not required but it’s advisable to make contact with ATC first and get the scoop on what’s going.

National Security Area (NSA). An NSA may sound like a Prohibited Area, but it’s not. It’s just a place where, for security and safety, pilots are requested to avoid overflight as depicted on the chart. For example, Livermore Labs has an NSA requesting pilots don’t overfly below 800’. Further restrictions can always be put in place by NOTAM, so make sure you check them.

Other Flight Restriction To Be Aware Of

Don’t forget the TFRs! A Temporary Flight Restriction is a “roving” restricted area, temporary in nature. They’re not on the sectionals and are issued by NOTAM. TFRs have different restrictions specific to why the TFR was setup. You’ll need to avoid them by a certain distance, a certain altitude, and/or just not go anywhere near them at all.

Examples for TFRs include rocket launches, wildfires, the Super Bowl, and movements of the President. Details for each TFR can be found in the NOTAMS or by contacting your Flight Service Station.

In Conclusion

It’s prudent to always check NOTAMs and study the charts before you go fly – this should go without saying, but yet many pilots still accidentally fly through active Restricted Areas, Prohibited Areas, and TFRs. Flying through a TFR can cost you your certificate! Don’t let that happen to you.

For more information on Special Use Airspace, see the Aeronautical Information Manual, Chapter 3, Section 4.

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