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.