Special Use Airspace

Special use airspace or special area of operation (SAO) is the designation for airspace in which certain activities must be confined, or where limitations may be imposed on aircraft operations that are not part of those activities. Certain special use airspace areas can create limitations on the mixed use of airspace. The special use airspace depicted on instrument charts includes the area name or number, effective altitude, time and weather conditions of operation, the controlling agency, and the chart panel location. On National Aeronautical Charting Group (NACG) en route charts, this information is available on one of the end panels. Special use airspace usually consists of:
  • Prohibited areas
  • Restricted areas
  • Warning areas
  • Military operation areas (MOAs)
  • Alert areas
  • Controlled firing areas (CFAs)

Prohibited Areas

Prohibited areas contain airspace of defined dimensions within which the flight of aircraft is prohibited. Such areas are established for security or other reasons associated with the national welfare. These areas are published in the Federal Register and are depicted on aeronautical charts. The area is charted as a “P” followed by a number (e.g., P-40).

Special Use Airspace
Figure 1. An example of a prohibited area, P-40 around Camp David

Examples of prohibited areas include Camp David and the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where the White House and the Congressional buildings are located. [Figure 1]

Restricted Areas

Restricted areas are areas where operations are hazardous to nonparticipating aircraft and contain airspace within which the flight of aircraft, while not wholly prohibited, is subject to restrictions. Activities within these areas must be confined because of their nature, or limitations may be imposed upon aircraft operations that are not a part of those activities, or both. Restricted areas denote the existence of unusual, often invisible, hazards to aircraft (e.g., artillery firing, aerial gunnery, or guided missiles). IFR flights may be authorized to transit the airspace and are routed accordingly. Penetration of restricted areas without authorization from the using or controlling agency may be extremely hazardous to the aircraft and its occupants. ATC facilities 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 joint-use restricted airspace:
  1. If the restricted area is not active and has been released to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the ATC facility allows the aircraft to operate in the restricted airspace without issuing specific clearance for it to do so.
  2. If the restricted area is active and has not been released to the FAA, the ATC facility issues a clearance that ensures the aircraft avoids the restricted airspace.

Restricted areas are charted with an “R” followed by a number (e.g., R-4401) and are depicted on the en route chart appropriate for use at the altitude or FL being flown. [Figure 2] Restricted area information can be obtained on the back of the chart.

Special Use Airspace
Figure 2. Restricted areas on a sectional chart

Warning Areas

Warning areas are similar in nature to restricted areas; however, the United States government does not have sole jurisdiction over the airspace. A warning area is airspace of defined dimensions, extending from 3 NM outward from the coast of the United States, containing activity that may be hazardous to nonparticipating aircraft. The purpose of such areas is to warn nonparticipating pilots of the potential danger. A warning area may be located over domestic or international waters or both. The airspace is designated with a “W” followed by a number (e.g., W-237). [Figure 3]

Special Use Airspace
Figure 3. Requirements for airspace operations

Military Operation Areas (MOAs)

MOAs consist of airspace with defined vertical and lateral limits established for the purpose of separating certain military training activities from IFR traffic. Whenever an MOA is being used, nonparticipating IFR traffic may be cleared through an MOA if IFR separation can be provided by ATC. Otherwise, ATC reroutes or restricts nonparticipating IFR traffic. MOAs are depicted on sectional, VFR terminal area, and en route low altitude charts and are not numbered (e.g., “Camden Ridge MOA”). [Figure 4] However, the MOA is also further defined on the back of the sectional charts with times of operation, altitudes affected, and the controlling agency.

Special Use Airspace
Figure 4. Camden Ridge MOA is an example of a military operations area

Alert Areas

Alert areas are depicted on aeronautical charts with an “A” followed by a number (e.g., A-211) to inform nonparticipating pilots of areas that may contain a high volume of pilot training or an unusual type of aerial activity. Pilots should exercise caution in alert areas. All activity within an alert area shall be conducted in accordance with regulations, without waiver, and pilots of participating aircraft, as well as pilots transiting the area, shall be equally responsible for collision avoidance. [Figure 5]

Special Use Airspace
Figure 5. Alert area (A-211)

Controlled Firing Areas (CFAs)

CFAs contain activities that, if not conducted in a controlled environment, could be hazardous to nonparticipating aircraft. The difference between CFAs and other special use airspace is that activities must be suspended when a spotter aircraft, radar, or ground lookout position indicates an aircraft might be approaching the area. There is no need to chart CFAs since they do not cause a nonparticipating aircraft to change its flight path.

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