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Military Operations Areas: What You Need to Know


Ah, the controversial military operations area. Military operations areas (MOAs) can be a point of debate for pilots and flight instructors. Some pilots recommend you avoid them completely, no matter how inconvenient. Others have no problem flying through them without a care in the world.

An MOA is a military operations area that the FAA has designated as special use airspace due to a high density of military aircraft in the vicinity. The MOA has a designated ceiling and floor, and is depicted on sectional charts as a maroon hatched area. MOAs are "caution" areas for pilots and the FAA urges pilots to use extreme caution when operating in these areas, and also recommends speaking to the local controlling agency when flying in an MOA.

Military flying includes low-levels, formation and high-speed maneuvers. While military pilots are trained to clear the area before maneuvers, the maneuvers are fast and cover a lot of ground. When two fighter pilots are flying in formation, they're paying more attention to their wingman and their training mission than they are to potential intruders.

As a private pilot, I flew through a few active MOAs, because after all, it's totally legal and there was nothing stopping me. But as a CFI flying in and out of a local airport near a military base, I learned more about what goes on in MOAs and quickly changed tactics. Now, I constantly urge students to avoid MOAs whenever possible. But sometimes it's really inconvenient to fly around and impossible to fly above or below, so pilots still need to know how to fly though an MOA safely. Here are a few need-to-know items about military operations areas:

  • During active times, MOAs often have different types of aircraft performing maneuvers at different airspeeds.
  • MOAs are often divided into sections for various types of training, and many MOAs have a "high" and "low" area.
  • MOAs have active and inactive hours, also known as "hot" and "cold" times. Check with a flight service specialist before you fly to find out whether the MOA is active or not.
  • MOAs are sometimes granted permission to fly "lights out" training missions in which the exterior lighting on the aircraft is turned OFF during night training flights in order to simulate night vision technology and practice night-related maneuvers. The lack of position lights or strobes will obviously make aircraft in MOAs nearly impossible to see, so it's especially important to avoid these areas at night. Again, checking NOTAMs and knowing about specific military operations are in your area will help you determine your options.
  • Military aircraft do not necessarily have airspeed restrictions within MOA limits. The 250-knot restriction, for example, does not apply to military aircraft in MOAs.

If you can't avoid a military operations area, there are a few precautions you can take to minimize the risk of encountering a military jet:

  • Always know the locations of active MOAs and corresponding altitudes, limitations and frequencies.
  • File a flight plan and utilize flight following services.
  • Make sure you turn your aircraft's transponder ON. Some military aircraft have traffic collision avoidance technology.
  • Always use extreme caution when flying through an MOA. Because of the high speed of some military aircraft, the necessary reaction time will be substantially less if you need to get out of a situation.

To find out which MOAs are active, what the hours are, or to learn about lights out activity, you'll first want to check the NOTAMs. If you check NOTAMs through the use of 1-800-WX-BRIEF, you'll need to specifically ask for operating hours of local MOAs, including a specific request for information on lights out operations.

You can also get updates via the military installation directly. Most (if not all) military installations will have flyers and information readily available to general aviation pilots, local airports and the general public about specific local military operations. This information can often be located on the installation's website or by calling the installation's safety office or public affairs office.

Military operations areas are high-risk, and general aviation pilots should seriously consider other options before flying through an active MOA. At the very least, it's imperative for pilots to be on a flight plan and talking to the controlling agency when flying through an active MOA.

For more information on military operations areas, military airports and military training routes, visit seeandavoid.org.

Why You Could Land at the Wrong Airport, Too: Confirmation Bias in Pilots


Photo © Scott Scheiffer/Twitter

As humans, we tend to see what we want to see and believe what we want to believe. It's a psychological impediment known as confirmation bias, and it leads us to subconsciously seek information that affirms our beliefs and neglect information that might disprove the decisions we've already made.

We're all guilty of it, whether we know it or not. In fact, you're probably reading this right now with a hint of confirmation bias, seeking out the words and sentences on the page that confirm the thoughts or opinions you may already have.

It might sound like a lot of psychological babble, but it's a huge problem for pilots. Pilots trust in automation even when it's wrong because time after time, it works perfectly. Pilots land at the wrong airport even when the visual cues are there to tell them they're in the wrong place because they believe they're in the right place and look for indications that support that belief.

On two different occasions recently, aircraft have mistakenly landed at the wrong airport. Additionally, many aircraft accidents and incidents can be partially attributed to confirmation bias. Here are a few examples:

  • In 1989, a Boeing 737 operated by British Midland Airways crashed after encountering engine problems Both pilots incorrectly identified the engine that was malfunctioning and shut down the incorrect engine. When the perfectly good engine was shut down, the vibration lessened, confirming the pilot's belief that they chose the correct engine to shut down. The pilots then chose to ignore various other indications regarding the affected engine, like the engine instrument system (EIS). Confirmation bias was studied as a result of this accident.

  • In 2006, a CRJ-100 operating as Comair Flight 5191 crashed during takeoff from the wrong runway at Bluegrass Airport in Kentucky. Though there were many contributing factors in this accident, confirmation bias was listed in the NTSB findings.
  • In November 2013, a Boeing 747 Dreamlifter landed at Jabara airport, a small uncontrolled field in Wichita, instead of their intended destination, McConnell Air Force Base.

  • In January 2014, a Southwest Airlines crew landed at the wrong airport with a Boeing 737 full of passengers. The runway length at M. Graham Clark Downtown Airport, where the 737 landed, is just over 3,700 feet and the Boeing 737 stopped with just a few hundred feet to spare.

    The investigations for these incidents of airplanes landing at the wrong airport are incomplete, and I'm no investigator, but it's very possible that confirmation bias played a role in both of these incidents, causing the pilots to see and believe that they were on approach for the right airport while ignoring important visual cues such as runway lights, heading and instrument indications, which could have given them a reality check.

Preventing Confirmation Bias:
It's easy to fall into the confirmation bias trap, and general aviation pilots are not immune. In fact, confirmation bias is especially dangerous for GA pilots, who often fly by themselves. And we don't know when we're doing it, so it's a difficult problem to fix.

The FAA recommends that pilots make a conscious, unbiased effort to make decisions and remain cognizant of how reality might differ from our perception. A second person in the cockpit can help with this since two minds are better than one, but the accidents and incidents mentioned above tell us that confirmation bias can affect us, even with two or three people in the cockpit.

Another method for avoiding confirmation bias involves constantly looking for reasons to disprove your beliefs or decisions. If you see more reasons faulting the decision than supporting it, it's time to reevaluate.

While there is no absolute solution for confirmation bias, being aware of it is a step in the right direction. Knowing it exists might just help you evaluate - or think twice about - your decision making process.

Unforecast Icing Conditions: How Would You React?

Unforecast Icing Conditions
Photo © UCAR

Winter usually means great flying weather, but the cold weather also brings its own set of challenges: Snowy runways, cold preflights and dangerous icing conditions. For general aviation pilots, one of the biggest risks of flying in cold weather is the possibility of structural icing.

According to AOPA, aircraft structural icing was the cause of more than 150 accidents over a recent period of 10 years. Icing can be present, even when it's not forecasted. As pilots, it's important to know about weather patterns and what to do should icing begin to develop on your aircraft in flight.

I read an accident case study recently that I think serves as a good reminder to stay alert for icing conditions, even if icing is not in the forecast. You can view the details of this particular accident case study, in which a pilot of a Cirrus SR22 en route from Reno/Tahoe International Airport (RNO) to Oakland, California encountered inadvertent structural icing conditions and crashed into mountainous terrain, here.

By all accounts, the pilot performed his preflight preparation responsibilities normally. According to AOPA's accident analysis, he spent time reviewing the weather, including a full weather briefing, which stated that there were no AIRMETs or SIGMETs or precipitation in the area. The Cirrus SR22 was even quipped with an icing protection system, although it was not approved for flight into known icing. So what went wrong?

The NTSB's probable cause report states that the cause of accident was the pilot's loss of control due to an inadvertent icing encounter. Interestingly, the report also cited an inaccurate weather report from the NWS Aviation Weather Center as a contributing factor.

While there was a low probability for icing conditions according to the NWS, there were a few red flags that may have changed the outcome for this Cirrus pilot if he took notice and reacted. For example, the weather briefer indicated a low freezing level of 6,000 feet and approaching precipitation, although it was dry at the time. Additionally, as the Cirrus departed, an incoming Southwest Airlines 737 reported unforecasted moderate rime icing at 17,000 feet. The weather report also stated cloud tops were between 17,000 and 20,000 feet - well above the service ceiling of the Cirrus. This should have alerted the pilot that climbing above the clouds wasn't an option.

This accident is testimony that as pilots, the more we know about weather and icing conditions, the safer we'll be. While forecasts are helpful, the lack of forecasted icing conditions doesn't always mean that we're in the clear. Below are a few reminders and tips for winter flying.

  • Know your aircraft systems: There's a difference between de-icing and anti-ice equipment, and there's a reason that many aircraft with anti-ice systems are still not approved for flight into known icing conditions. Research and learn about your aircraft's specific systems and how it will react in icing conditions.

  • Know your weather: There are a few items to pay close attention to in the weather briefing, such as cloud tops, freezing levels, and of course AIRMETs, SIGMETs and PIREPs. But a good review of weather theory is helpful in determining the effects of incoming weather systems and fronts, as well as certain areas like over mountains or near water, where icing is common.

  • Know when and where icing occurs: Icing usually forms when the aircraft surface (NOT the outside air temperature) is below freezing AND where there is visible moisture. Icing can also occur inside of a "wet" cloud - a cloud with super-cooled liquid water droplets in it.

  • Know what to do when you encounter icing: You have three options if you encounter icing in your aircraft: Climb, descend or turn around. Which one of these you choose will depend on the cloud height, temperatures and your location and terrain. (FYI: Contrary to what many people are told, climbing is not always the best option, as the case study above demonstrates!) If there's even a small chance that you'll encounter icing conditions on your flight, it's best to fully prepare beforehand with multiple exit strategies. Know the cloud tops, the temperatures and the locations of alternate airports. And always communicate to ATC immediately if you find yourself in an icing situation. The pilot in the case above failed to notify ATC when he experienced icing. Instead, he spent 10 minutes trying to trouble shoot on his own. Perhaps the controllers could've helped route him into a warmer, cloudless area had they known more about his situation.

 

For more tips and tricks about how to prevent icing and what to do if you encounter it, check out AOPA Safety Advisor: Aircraft Icing.