What You Need to Know About Nonregulatory Special Use Airspace Areas
by Crista Worthy
The title above is a misnomer. Technically, there is no place in America you cannot fly over, provided you have received authorization by the using agency. Without that authorization, however, or without following proper procedures, you could get in a lot of trouble. Let’s look at the rules surrounding nonregulatory special use airspace areas.
Nonregulatory Special Use Airspace Areas
Per the FAA, you can usually fly in these airspaces without prior permission, but that would be not only foolishly dangerous, but might get you in trouble elsewhere (explained below).
Military Operating Areas (MOAs) are established to contain certain military activities, such as air combat maneuvers. IFR traffic is generally kept out of them, and flying VFR within them is at your own risk. MOAs are scattered across the country, depicted with magenta hatch marks and identified by name, such as the Jarbridge North MOA and Jarbridge South MOA southwest of Twin Falls, Idaho. Their vertical and horizontal dimensions, plus hours of activity, are shown in Order JO 7400.10A.
Alert Areas are identified as “A-“ followed by three numbers, and are shown inside a rectangle with a solid or hatched magenta border. They warn pilots of airspace that may contain a high volume of non-hazardous pilot training activities or unusual aerial activities.
Warning Areas are defined by borders of blue hatch marks and identified as “W-“ followed by two or three numbers and sometimes a letter. Warning Areas occur over international waters and contain activity that may be hazardous to nonparticipating aircraft.
National Security Areas (NSAs) are established where there is a requirement for increased security of ground facilities (often associated with nuclear power plants or nuclear weapons or research facilities). The FAA requests that pilots cooperate by avoiding flight through the NSA. Sometimes, for extra security, flight in an NSA may be temporarily prohibited; notification of such will be via NOTAM. NSAs are generally depicted on the sectional by thick magenta broken lines. Text inside a nearby box requests pilots, for reasons of national security, to avoid flight over this area below a certain altitude. Two examples of NSAs are above the Idaho National Laboratory northwest of Idaho Falls, and above the U.S. Army Anniston Chemical Depot near Anniston, Alabama.
All the above—every MOA, Alert Area, Warning Area and NSA—are described in detail in Order JO 7400.10A. You’re probably getting the idea that this document might be a good one to bookmark on your computer, and update to the new one each February.
National Parks and National Wildlife Refuges are usually, but not always, shown on the sectional, usually with a thin blue line and small blue dots around the border. The FAA requests that pilots fly at least 2,000 AGL over these areas to avoid disturbing wildlife.
Test Your Knowledge
Here’s a little exercise:
- Look at the San Francisco sectional, in the areas both north and south of San Francisco. You’ll notice an NSA, depicted as a solid magenta circle with info in a nearby box, just east of Livermore (LVK). Restricted Area R-2531 is just east of the NSA.
- Look up the altitudes, times of designation and controlling and using agencies of R-2531, on Page 29 of JO 7400.10A. Now you can see that R-2531 goes from the surface to 4,000 feet MSL and, unless activated by NOTAM, is inactive on weekends. But check with NorCal Approach to be sure.
- Note Pinnacles National Park east of Monterey (MRY). Because this area is frequented by endangered (and gigantic) California condors that often soar at high altitudes, pilots are requested to fly at least 3,000 feet AGL here.
- Scroll west, beyond the shoreline at Monterey. A thick, jagged blue line shows the floor of Class E airspace is 5,500 feet MSL. A nearby blue box warns that extensive fleet and air operations are conducted to about 100 miles seaward.
- Look just west of San Francisco, you can see the floors and ceilings of the Class B airspace at different areas. You’ll also see a thin blue line and associated blue dots all along the shoreline, depicting various national wildlife refuges, where the FAA requests you maintain at least 2,000 feet AGL. But, note the magenta boxes and magenta thin lines and dots: these depict and explain various marine sanctuaries. You must fly at least 1,000 feet AGL over these sanctuaries to avoid disturbing wildlife.
The FAA wouldn’t necessarily penalize you for violating these airspaces, but NOAA can, per 15 CFR Part 922. Each violation is subject to a civil penalty that can range from a written warning to a maximum of $100,000. Personally, I’d recommend at least 2,000 feet AGL over any and all of them!