5 Places You Need Permission to Fly Over
by Crista Worthy
You can technically fly over any area in the United States, but there are some areas where you need authorization to fly. It’s important to get this squared away; the consequences of getting caught are never worth it. Let’s look five special use airspaces and find out exactly what you legally can and cannot do in each.
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- Flightseeing Corridors/Tours and SFRAs
Some places are so popular for flightseeing, the FAA has created special procedures. To fly the New York Special Flight Rules Area (NYSFRA) and Hudson River Skyline Route, you must complete the FAA’s New York Special Flight Rules Course. Print a copy of your receipt and the FAA’s kneeboard reference, and have these in your plane, along with a copy of the New York Terminal Area Chart (TAC). Check NOTAMS for VIP, football, baseball or other TFRs that are common here.
The FAA has created special air traffic rules, FAR Part 93.71, to organize flightseeing over Niagara Falls, so study and follow these rules if you want to fly there. In Alaska, many pilots want to fly around Denali, the highest peak in North America. The FAA has established pilot information and special pilot reporting points to keep traffic separated. Study these and print a copy for cockpit use.
To fly over the Grand Canyon, you must be at or above 14,500 feet MSL unless you fly within one of four corridors. Flying within a corridor allows you to fly as low as 11,500 feet MSL northbound, and as low as 10,500 feet MSL southbound. The corridors and procedures are depicted on the Grand Canyon VFR Aeronautical Chart. The first new edition of the Grand Canyon Aeronautical Chart since 2001 took effect February 28, 2019, and revisions will now be issued every six months.
The San Francisco Bay area makes a great flight tour. Study the SF TAC and a Bay Tour Map before departure. Contact SF Tower and request a squawk code for a Bay Tour. Watch for traffic and comply with all ATC instructions.
For ease of flight in the Los Angeles area, several transition routes are published on the LA TAC. The LAX SFRA even allows you to fly directly over LAX. Study the procedures before you fly in the area.
The same holds true when operating in or near any Class B airspace: always take the time to examine the TAC.
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- DC SFRA
The DC SFRA is a special case. The DC SFRA covers the airspace within 60 nm of the DCA VOR/DME, from the surface to 18,000 feet MSL. This Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) was established after 9/11 to restrict and control air traffic near Washington, D.C.
Prior to entering the DC SFRA, you must complete an FAA online course (it’s a good idea to print your receipt of completion and carry it in your airplane), file a flight plan and receive a squawk code and clearance from ATC. Within the DC SFRA is a flight-restricted zone, the DC FRZ. To enter this area, you must additionally have completed a federal security and background check. When operating in these areas, comply with all ATC instructions or face possible FAA and federal civil and/or criminal penalties—even deadly force if your actions are perceived to be an imminent security threat.
- Prohibited Areas
Prohibited Areas are shown on VFR charts with blue hatch marks around their borders and identified as P- followed by two numbers and occasionally a letter. There are several within the DC FRZ; they overlay Mount Vernon, the Naval Observatory and the area that encompasses the Capitol, Washington Monument and other memorials, and the White House. No person may operate an aircraft within a prohibited area unless authorization has been granted by the using agency.
Prohibited Areas, like Restricted Areas and others mentioned below, are numbered. The area above the White House and Capitol is P-56A. You can look up the applicable altitudes and times of use of any of these areas in the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization Policy, Special Use Airspace document (currently Order JO 7400.10A), which is updated annually, usually in February. So, technically, if you completed your DC SFRA course, completed your FBI background and security check, had prior permission from the controlling agency (in this case, the U.S. Secret Service), filed a flight plan got your clearance and squawk code and ATC vectored you, you could fly over the White House. Don’t hold your breath though.
- Restricted Areas
There are many Restricted Areas across the country; their borders are also shown with blue hatch marks, and they are identified as R- followed by four numbers, and often a letter.
Their designated areas, altitudes and times of operation are shown in Order JO 7400.10A. No person may operate an aircraft within a Restricted Area between the designated altitudes and during the time of designation, unless he has the advance permission of the using agency (normally an organization or military command) or the controlling agency. The controlling agency would be the segment of Air Traffic Control that has jurisdiction over that airspace. Often ATC has Letters of Agreement with using agencies.
So, for example, let’s say you’d like to transition over Edwards Air Force Base in California. You can call LA Center and make the request. If the airspace is not “hot” (being used) at the time, and if LA Center has an agreement that allows it, they may vector you through the airspace. I have done this many times. But, do not enter a Restricted Area without ATC permission. You risk an FAA violation or even interception by military jets.
As you can see from the above, there can be very specific procedures associated with flying in certain airspaces. Understanding and complying with all airspace regulations is your responsibility as PIC. Don’t be intimidated by the DC SFRA briefing. It’s not difficult and takes only about 30 minutes to complete.
If at any time you are unsure of how to proceed, don’t hesitate to ask ATC. They are there to help and you won’t be the first pilot who has requested clarification. They can give you a vector to keep you on the right path, and they’d much prefer to prevent you from straying in the first place, rather than having to extricate you if you’ve blundered into the wrong area.
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Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) have become more common in the post-9/11 environment, and often pop up on very short notice. Pilots should check NOTAMS before each flight. VIP TFRs are put in place before visits from the U.S. President, and often the Vice President. Sports TFRs are placed over all Major League Baseball games and all National League Football games. TFRs are sometimes placed over major wildfires; these can last for weeks. Disneyland and Disneyworld have “permanent” TFRs over them. I personally like to use Skyvector, which depicts TFRs in an easy-to-see graphic format, overlaid on the sectional. Hold the cursor over the TFR to see when it is in effect, why, and at what altitudes. But, to be safe, check the FAA site as well for all TFRs.
Now go fly!