The Ins and Outs of MOAs and Restricted Areas
by Larry Bothe, DPE, Master CFI


MOAs and Restricted Areas are two types of special use airspace. And probably no other airspace types cause more confusion among pilots, especially those who are candidates at a checkride.

A MOA (Military Operations Area) is an airspace where there may be a higher than normal concentration of military aircraft flying around. The difference between a MOA and a Restricted Area is that in a MOA the military aircraft are just flying around practicing formation flight, intercepts, and the like, but they are NOT shooting guns or dropping bombs. In contrast, a Restricted Area often encompasses a gunnery range and/or a bombing practice area. Dangerous stuff goes on in a Restricted Area. That's why you don't need to call anybody to fly through a MOA, but you have to call about a Restricted Area. In real world operations, however, it is a good idea to check the status of a MOA before entry.

According to the Airman’s Information Manual, in order to fly through an MOA you are supposed to be "extra vigilant", but you don't have to call anybody to determine if it is active or not. And MOAs are not the only places with military traffic. On the sectional chart are gray lines with the designation VR or IR. These are Military Training Routes, and they are all over the place. The gray lines are only an approximation of where military aircraft might be; they are NOT necessarily right on the gray lines when they do their training exercises.

A Restricted Area is just that; access into the area is restricted but not prohibited. That means that in order to enter a Restricted Area you need to make sure it is


not in use. You do that by calling the controlling agency, as shown on the frequency tab of the sectional chart, and asking if the Restricted Area in question is in use or not. Controller jargon for this is "hot" (in use), or "cold" (not in use). According to a letter from FAA’s Office of Chief Counsel, “A clearance is not required to operate VFR through a restricted area when the controlling or using agency, as applicable, has made a determination that the restricted area is 'cold'.” The letter further said that when a Restricted Area is cold, i.e. not in use, it doesn't even exist. Restricted Areas only exist when they are in use. Thus, if the restricted area is cold you can fly through it; if it's hot then go around. It's as simple as that. The controlling agency does not supply specific permission or a clearance to enter Restricted Airspace.

While most pilots understand technically how MOAs and Restricted Areas behave, as a practical matter they would never think about calling to see if a Restricted Area is hot. They will always go around, as if the Restricted Area was actually a Prohibited Area. This is a very wasteful attitude as most Restricted Areas are, in fact, in use for only a few hours each day. The rest of the time you can fly right through if you would only take 15 seconds or so to make the call to the controlling agency. Since names and frequencies are available on sectional charts, calling is a simple procedure. In addition to the name of the controlling agency and the frequency, sectional charts also provide information as to when Restricted Areas may be in use. When you see the time of use printed on the chart as "continuous" that doesn't mean the airspace will be in use continuously during the times indicated. What it really means is that it COULD be in use during those hours. Odds are that it will NOT be in use when you call. Flying an extra half-hour out of your way in order to avoid a 15-second radio call is really wasteful.

When I'm instructing, I have my student plan a dual cross-country flight that on a direct route would take them through a Restricted Area. While in flight I have them call the controlling agency to find out if the airspace is in use. Sometimes it is; sometimes not. In either case the student has learned how easy it is to call and find out. Center is not just for heavy iron. For whatever reason, probably because they weren't properly trained either, many flight instructors convey to their primary students that calling to see if a Restricted Area is "hot" is a waste of time. You are going to get told to stay out. Since in the real world the opposite is true, those same instructors need to rethink how they teach this particular bit of information. With the high prices of AvGas and concurrently rising rental rates, flying through Restricted Areas that are not in use is becoming an increasingly attractive alternative. Call and ask.



© Copyright 2015 by Larry Bothe. All Rights Reserved.