7 Types Of Special Use Airspace Pilots Should Know

| July 22, 2021 | By: Severe VFR
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Special use airspace (SUA) consists of that airspace wherein activities must be confined because of their nature, or limitations may be imposed on non-participating aircraft that are not a part of the airspaces designated activity. 

Regulatory Special Use Airspace

Special Use Airspace is categorized as regulatory or non-regulatory. 

Regulatory special use airspace consists of:

  • Restricted Areas
  • Prohibited Areas

Prohibited and restricted areas are classified as regulatory because they are established in 14 CFR Part 73 through the rule-making process. 

This regulation describes both prohibited and restricted airspace as "Airspace of defined dimensions identified by an area on the surface of the earth wherein activities must be confined because of their nature, or wherein limitations are imposed upon aircraft operations that are not a part of those activities, or both."

 Designated altitude floors and ceilings measure the vertical limits expressed as flight levels or as feet above mean sea level. Horizontal limits are measured by boundaries described by geographic coordinates or other appropriate references that clearly define their perimeter. 

Restricted Areas

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Restricted Areas identify an area on the earth's surface where flight over that surface, while not wholly prohibited, is subject to restrictions. 

Restricted Areas denotes the existence of unusual, often invisible, hazards to aircraft such as:

  • Artillery Firing
  • Aerial Gunnery; or
  • Guided Missiles

Therefore, restrictions on aircraft operation within a restricted area are put in place to protect non-participating aircraft from these hazards.

Aircraft that enter a restricted area without authorization may be extremely hazardous to the aircraft and its occupants.

No person may operate an aircraft within a restricted area between the designated altitudes while that airspace is active unless they have the advance permission of:

  • The using agency; or
  • The controlling agency

Using agency consist of the agency, organization, or military command whose activities required the restricted area to be created. 

Using agencies:

  • Schedule activities within the restricted area;
  • authorize transit through, or flight within, the restricted area when feasible; and
  • Contain within the restricted area all activities being conducted

Controlling agencies are FAA facilities that may authorize transit through or flight within a restricted area in accordance with an issued joint-use letter.

Joint-use letters are only issued upon request by the FAA and establish procedures for "joint-use" of a restricted area. 

When a joint-use letter is issued, the Using agency will work with the Controlling agency to determine when the controlling agency may grant permission for transit flight through the restricted area. 

ATC facilities will apply the following procedures when aircraft are operating on an IFR clearance (including those cleared by ATC to maintain VFR-on-top) via a route that lies within join-use restricted airspace:

  1. If the restricted area is not active and has been released to the controlling agency, the ATC facility will allow the aircraft to operate in the restricted airspace without issuing a specific clearance. 
  2. If the restricted area is active and has not been released to the controlling agency, the ATC facility will issue a clearance which will ensure the aircraft avoids the restricted airspace unless it is on an approved altitude reservation mission or informs the controlling agency that it has obtained permission to operate in the airspace.

If the restricted airspace is nonjoint-use airspace, the ATC facility will issue a clearance that has the aircraft avoid the restricted airspace unless it is on an approved altitude reservation mission or informs ATC that it has obtained its own permission to operate in the airspace.

Pilots should be aware that only permanent restricted areas are charted on Sectional, VFR, and En Route charts. Temporary restricted areas are not charted. Pilots should review Domestic Notices listed in the Federal NOTAM System or contact the appropriate overlying ATC facility to determine the effect of non-depicted restricted areas along their flight route. 

Prohibited Area

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Prohibited areas prohibit aircraft flight into, out of, and through any airspace designated as a Prohibited area. 

Aircraft are not allowed to operate in a prohibited area mainly because prohibited areas are established for security or other reasons associated with the national welfare. 

Prohibited areas are established by a using agency, which is the agency, organization, or military command that established the requirements for the prohibited area. 

Unlike a restricted area, a prohibited area does not have a joint-issued controlling agency. ATC can not give aircraft the ability to operate within the prohibited area. Only the using agency may grant permission to operate in a prohibited area.

With this being said, aircraft do operate in prohibited areas. 

However, for the general public, the ability to get permission to enter a prohibited area is essentially zero. Luckily, only eight prohibited areas exist at the time of this writing and are relatively small in size.

Non-Regulatory Special Use Airspace

A majority of special use airspace is categorized as non-regulatory. 

Non-regulatory special use airspace includes:

  • Military Operations Area (MOA)
  • Warning Areas
  • Alert Areas
  • Controlled Firing Area (CFA)
  • National Security Area (NSA)

Military Operations Area

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Military Operations Areas (MOAs) are established outside of Class A airspace to separate military training activities from IFR traffic and to VFR traffic identify where military activities are occurring. When a MOA is active, ATC may clear nonparticipating aircraft operating under IFR through a MOA if IFR separation can be provided. However, if IFR separation can not be provided, ATC must reroute or restrict nonparticipating IFR traffic. 

Types of military training activities that are conducted in a MOA include:

  • Air Combat Tactics
  • Air Intercepts
  • Aerobatics
  • Formation Training; and
  • Low Altitude Tactics

MOAs also exempt military pilots from being prohibited from conducting aerobatic flight within Class D and Class E surface areas and within Federal airways. 

Additionally, the Department of Defense has been issued an authorization to operate aircraft at indicated airspeeds in excess of 250 knots below 20,000ft MSL within an active MOA. 

Warning Area

Warning Area Special Use Airspace

Warning areas have a high amount of overlap compared to restricted areas.

A warning area's purpose is to warn pilots of potential hazards, and pilots can expect to find hazards similar to that of a restricted area.

However, unlike a restricted area, warning areas are located over domestic and international waters, starting from 3nm off the US coast and extending outward into the open ocean. Therefore, the United States government does not have sole jurisdiction over every warning area.

Alert Area

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Alert areas are used to define areas that may contain a high volume of pilot training or unusual type of aerial activity.

In either case, the types of activity contained within an alert area are not hazardous to aircraft. All activities that occur within an alert area are to be conducted in accordance with regulations unless a waiver is obtained.

Pilots are free to transit through alert areas as they wish. Permission is not required, and no agency has controlling jurisdiction over an Alert Area.

However, pilots should still maintain a higher level of caution. Both participating and nonparticipating pilots operating within or transiting through an alert area are equally responsible for collision avoidance.

Controlled Firing Area

 Controlled Firing Areas (CFAs) contain activities that, if not conducted in a controlled environment, could be hazardous to nonparticipating aircraft. 

A CFA aims to conduct activities under controlled conditions to eliminate hazards to nonparticipating aircraft and ensure the safety of persons and property on the ground. 

A CFA also provides a means to accommodate, without impact to aviation, certain hazardous activities that can be immediately suspended if a nonparticipating aircraft approaches the area. 

Since activities are immediately suspended when a nonparticipating aircraft approaches, CFAs are not depicted on aeronautical charts. Nonparticipating aircraft are also not required to avoid or establish communications with any controlling agency to enter the CFA. ATC also is not required to maintain any separation requirements. 

CFAs are only considered when necessary to accommodate activities that can be immediately suspended, and it has been specifically determined that the designation of a restricted area is not warranted. 

Activities conducted in a CFA must be capable of being immediately suspended on notice that a nonparticipating aircraft is approaching. Examples of these types of activities include:

  • Ordnance disposal
  • Blasting
  • Static testing of large rocket motors

Controlled firing areas are not intended to have activities that involve aircraft ordnance delivery. However, the operation of observer or surveillance aircraft is permitted. 

Other types of activities, such as artillery, may be considered if they can meet the criteria and safety precautions. 

To maintain safety with nonparticipating aircraft, CFAs are required to maintain an Area Surveillance. 

Area surveillance must be continuously maintained immediately prior to and when the hazardous activity is in progress. Surveillance is accomplished by trained ground observers, aircraft, surface vessels, and a combination of these methods. Radar may also be used to supplement visual surveillance. 

An adequate number of trained observers must be used to ensure full coverage of the critical area. These observers must be provided with continuous effective communications with all firing points. If communication is lost at any time, all hazardous activities must be ceased until communication is re-established. 

Additionally, CFAs require the base of the clouds to be at least 1,000ft higher than the highest altitude affected by the hazardous activity. Projectiles are not allowed to enter any cloud formation. Visibility must also be sufficient enough to allow visual surveillance of the entire CFA, plus a distance 5 miles beyond the CFA boundary in all directions. 

National Security Area

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A national security area (NSA) consists of airspace of defined vertical and lateral dimensions established at locations where there is a requirement for increased security of ground facilities.

NSAs are put in place when a need to protect a national asset or an area in the interest of national security.

The size of an NSA should be the minimum size required to promote the protection of the national asset or area identified.

Pilots are requested to voluntarily avoid flying through an NSA. However, no official requirement to avoid an NSA is published.

If a greater level of security is required, flight in an NSA may be temporarily prohibited pr 14 CFR 99.7.

NSAs may also request to restrict flight operations in the NSA. This restriction will be issued by the Rules and Regulation Group and disseminated via NOTAM.

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