Navigating Domestic and International Restricted Airspace Regulations

Post Date:
July 10, 2024
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The United States alone hosts over 370 restricted areas across states and coastal regions. Internationally, every country also has its own particular airspace regulations, including areas of airspace designated as restricted.

For Business Aviation pilots, dealing with restricted airspace is an inevitable part of the job.

What is Restricted Airspace?

Restricted airspace simply means an area of airspace, defined both laterally and vertically, that has some restriction on flight operations. 

It can exist for various reasons. For example, due to the presence of potential aviation hazards, extremely sensitive areas on the ground, and other areas deemed necessary by the regulating aviation authority or government. 

Restrictions are commonly found over large military installations, sites with a national security interest such as nuclear power stations or important government installations and, additionally, some natural areas can also be designated as restricted areas in order to protect them. 

Restricted airspace doesn’t always mean prohibited. It may be permissible to fly through restricted airspace, yet does require relevant permissions to be obtained beforehand.

How to Identify Restricted Airspace on a Chart

Every pilot will remember the early days of flight training when they first used aeronautical charts and learned to identify and understand different classes of airspace, restricted and prohibited areas.  

On US VFR sectional charts, restricted areas are clearly marked with a blue hatched border and labeled with the letter “R” followed by a serial number. The numbers and letters after the “R-” are known as the “designator.” 

Further details can be found in the legend, including the restricted area number, its vertical limits (in MSL), the relevant supervising ATC agency, and the communication frequency. The chart also states the hours, days, and/or dates that the restricted area is active. 

VFR charts published by other countries may seem unfamiliar when you see them for the first time. However, all the information relating to restricted areas will be clearly shown. And, depending on whether your flight is planned under VFR or IFR, in upper airspace or lower airspace, you may not even need to use a VFR chart for your flight.

Easy to Find Information

The required information is not always convenient to locate when you are airborne. Especially when your chart is folded and the legend giving details of the nearby restricted area is inaccessible without some clever origami in a confined cockpit. 

Fortunately, ForeFlight makes all this information available in your hand. Simply tap and hold the airspace in question and select details from the sidebar. Other features, like Profile View, offer information on any airspace that might impact your route.

How to Operate in Restricted Airspace

Navigating through restricted airspace requires securing the necessary authorization and obtaining clearance from the controlling agency.

Instrument Flight Rules (IFR)

Restricted airspace becomes significantly less challenging when operating under IFR as ATC will support you. If a restricted area is active and in use, ATC will automatically issue a clearance to divert the aircraft around the airspace. ATC can also potentially provide clearance for navigating through the area within the safe altitude boundaries. 

If the airspace is inactive, ATC can allow the aircraft to pass through it without the need for clearance. This process is often seamless, allowing pilots to navigate without necessarily being aware that they entered a restricted area. 

Traveling Internationally? Here’s How to Handle Restricted Airspace

While pilots should be familiar with protocols for navigating restricted airspace within their home country, the prospect of avoiding restricted airspace in an unfamiliar country may seem daunting. 

Be Proactive and Plan Ahead

When planning an international mission, robust preparation is essential as flight planning is fundamentally about ensuring flight safety.

To properly plan and operate an international flight, a large amount of information must be gathered and reviewed. Airspace classification, including restricted airspace, is one key element, but other important research is required, too: airfield hours of operation and available services; departure, arrival, and approach procedures; ATC preferred routings, communication, and navigation aid frequencies; weather reports and forecasts; local customs and immigration requirements; and any temporary changes that may affect any of these elements. 

When planning flights between North America and Europe, understanding the North Atlantic Track System is essential. The North Atlantic Tracks are a set of predetermined routes that aircraft follow when crossing the North Atlantic Ocean, ensuring that the high volume of traffic maintains separation where there is little radar coverage. The tracks change daily based on weather patterns, particularly the jet stream, to optimize flight times and fuel consumption. Pilots must obtain clearance to enter these tracks, which are assigned by oceanic control centers, Shanwick (EGGX) and Gander (CZQX). More information is available in ICAO NAT Doc 007

Partner With a Trip Support Provider

Effective flight planning ensures pilots proactively mitigate the risk of entering a restricted area, as opposed to dealing with it reactively.

In most cases, if you have filed an IFR flight plan, and the flight plan has been accepted by the relevant agency, you can be assured your planned flight will not breach restricted airspace if flown accurately. 

ForeFlight can plot your route from departure to destination, including international flights, accounting for air traffic preferred airways routings and, if the flight plan is initially rejected, will allow you to re-plan and re-submit so you can achieve an acceptable routing.

For those flights that take planners out of their comfort zone, a Trip Support provider can be invaluable. A planner can leverage services through ForeFlight for route planning and trip support which includes the North Atlantic Track System, and all available resources for thorough and compliant flight planning.

Prepare for Last-Minute Changes

Flight crew always need to be prepared for any last-minute changes that may occur before or during the flight. For example, temporary flight restrictions (TFR) don't appear on published aeronautical charts because of their short duration; they are notified by NOTAM. Typical reasons for a designation of a TFR are due to hazardous conditions or special events. Specific details will be provided in the NOTAM itself.

TFRs are displayed in ForeFlight Mobile, making them as easy to navigate as any other designated restricted area. 

Last minute changes can be challenging, which is another reason to recommend teaming up with a trip support provider. ForeFlight provides comprehensive tools to help pilots and planners recognize restricted airspace and facilitates international flight planning, ensuring a smooth and issue-free experience when organizing international flights. 

ForeFlight Trip Support 

By leveraging the latest technology, Business Aviation operators can plan and operate safe, efficient and issue-free flights, both locally and internationally. ForeFlight Trip Support provides a complete array of trip services that make international travel simple and easy for your team, simplifying the process of planning and executing international trips.

Frequently Asked Questions on Restricted Airspace

What happens if a plane flies into restricted airspace?

If an aircraft enters a restricted airspace without the proper authorization, it will constitute an airspace violation. The consequences will depend on the severity of the violation and the type of restricted area. Enforcement action will take place and can include anything from a letter of reprimand to license suspensions or license revocation. 

How do you check for restricted US airspace?

Restricted areas will be marked on sectional maps and the ForeFlight app with a large blue hatched border and the letter ‘R’ followed by the area serial number. Temporary restricted areas will be notified by NOTAM.