Arizona is flush with spectacular desert wilderness, craggy mountains, canyons, vast open areas, and very little population outside of the metro areas. It makes for some incredibly scenic flights where you may not see another aircraft for your entire flight, even with ADS-B In. This unpopulated and diverse terrain also makes it very attractive to our military. This rugged diversity allows for realistic training missions to be conducted without impacting the general population. Unfortunately, this creates a very real hazard for GA pilots who may be completely unaware of the activity. I recall seeing a pair of A-10’s much closer (and later) than I wanted to see them on a flight near Tucson several years ago while about 1500’ AGL. I caught them on my scan, but the closure rate was so fast, it would have been too late to avoid them if they’d been any closer. I wasn’t even in a Military Operating Area, so I was a bit surprised. So, let’s discuss the various airspaces used by our military, how they are used, and how best to avoid a conflict.
Restricted Areas are typically easy to spot. These areas are clearly defined on sectional charts with designators starting with “R-xxxx” and outlined with blue hatch marks. If using paper, the details are on the side of the chart. If using an electronic chart, selecting the area will display the area designator, the altitude restrictions, the time in use, the controlling agency, and the contact/controlling frequency. We’re all taught in primary training to avoid them because they represent live-fire ranges, dog fight arenas, UAS activity, tethered balloons, or other uses incompatible with GA flights. There are currently 32 Restricted Areas in Arizona! These are mostly centered near the US Army Yuma Proving Ground in Yuma, the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range along our southern border, and Ft. Huachuca near Sierra Vista. GA pilots can fly through these areas provided they are “cold,” and you’ve previously arranged transit with the controlling agency AND received their permission. Don’t expect to get permission just because it’s listed as “cold” on the chart and it will shave time off your flight. However, the Sierra Vista airport is smack dab in the middle of a pack of Restricted Areas, and the US Army coordinates civilian flights into and out of that airport regularly and welcomes the practice. The Restricted Area surrounding the airport is open when the tower is open, so listen to ATIS and communicate as required.
Military Operation Areas (MOAs) cover much larger swaths of land and are also prevalent in Arizona. There are 28 MOAs that cover much of the state. Frequent low-level, high-speed flights are conducted in these areas in support of military training and operations. These areas are marked by magenta hatched lines on the chart and have names associated with them, such as Gladden and Turtle MOAs. While there aren’t any specific restrictions to a GA pilot regarding flight through or within a MOA, extra caution should be given while in a MOA to avoid military aircraft. Like a Restricted Area, a MOA’s information can be found on the side of a paper chart, or on the electronic chart when the MOA is selected, to include active times, altitudes, and the controlling agency. Communication with the controlling agency is not required; however, it is highly recommended to contact Flight Service or use Flight Following prior to entry, and while in them MOA. Radar coverage is not always available due to the remote locations of most MOAs and ADS-B Out capability has not yet been installed on all military aircraft. Additionally, the mountainous terrain often blocks the ADS-B Out transmission. IFR traffic can be cleared through a MOA provided ATC can provide separation, but in the real world, plan around the MOA in advance of your flight since that radar coverage is not always available.
Luke Air Force Base near Phoenix has an Alert Area due to the high-intensity jet training conducted there. These student pilots are learning their aircraft but are doing so at much higher speeds than GA aircraft and at multiple altitudes. Think of the Northeast or Northwest Practice Areas near Phoenix, but faster. Like a MOA, there is no communication requirements to fly through an Alert Area. Pilots can contact Luke Approach to see if the area is active or request Flight Following.
As if the Restricted Areas, MOAs, and Alert Areas weren’t enough, there are over 5000 miles of Military Training Routes (MTR) within Arizona to contend with. Again, there are no specific restrictions to GA aircraft crossing them or being in proximity of them, there is a significant chance of encountering high-speed, low-level traffic that may not see you until it is too late. There are three types of training routes. Visual Routes (VR), Instrument Routes (IR), and Slow Speed Low Altitude (SR). Military aircraft flying the VR operate within VFR rules, while the IR operations are under IFR rules. MTR’s are depicted on Sectional Charts and Instrument charts with pale grey lines and a designator (VR-xx or IR-xxx) displayed within the line. Directional arrows are shown on the line, as some routes are one-way, and others go both directions. The numbering convention is key here. Routes with no segment above 1500’ AGL are four digits, while routes with at least one segment above 1500’ AGL are three digits. Though the depicted line is thin on the chart, the route extends 5NM either side of center. The last type of MTR, SR’s, are more difficult. These are flown up to 1500’ agl and below 250kts. This is primarily GA conditions and these routes are not depicted on Sectional or Instrument charts. Only DoD planning charts show this information. Being able to pick out a helicopter or an A-10 flying along is made more difficult due to the lack of bright white paint and an instantly recognizable form factor against the horizon. Active MTRs are displayed in Weather Briefings when requested. Use Flight Following whenever possible and pay attention on your scan.
Lastly, for Phoenix-area flying, Luke Air Force Base has a Special Air Traffic Rule area. This is depicted by a white area surrounded by blue hatch marks. Communication with Luke Approach is required to enter the area. Pilots will be given a discrete squawk code and handled by them during transition of the area.
Arizona flying is some of the most rewarding in the country. Our flying season is long, the destinations are fantastic, and the weather is great. Mostly. The airspace is complex, and it truly pays to study the chart and your planned flight in advance. Pay attention to the military areas, write down the communications plan, practice an effective scan, use Flight Following, and be safe.