If You Can't Handle Migs, Don't Fly in Mig Alley (Applies Also to F-16s)

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Remember that classic line by Dan Aykroyd on Saturday Night Live 20 years ago? He aimed it at some hapless girlfriend passed out on the floor during a bout of wild partying. It could apply equally to the two civil pilots who got jumped by an F-16 in the Gladden MOA, near Phoenix recently. One of the pilots related the incident in this podcast.

I'm trying to be sympathetic here, but as a former F-16 and now airline pilot friend of mine says, if you play in the sandbox, expect to get sand in your shoes.

The rules of operating inside active MOAs are clearly stated in the Aeronautical Information Manual. I won't quote it chapter and verse here, but the upshot is you're permitted to use the airspace, but you do so at your own risk, unless you're under IFR. Military aircraft operating inside MOAs are exempt from the FARs prohibiting the rest of us from performing aerobatic flight in proximity to federal airways and, surprise, they tend to maneuver aggressively in all dimensions. If the MOA is cold, ATC may route you through it and will provide separation services under IFR. If it's hot, you can still enter VFR, but just because ATC approves that, you aren't guaranteed anything—no separation, no clearance and traffic advisories on a workload-permitting basis.

And given how military aircraft maneuver and that they might not have transponders active, expecting meaningful advisories is dubious at best.

Furthermore, if you have TCAS—as many airplanes now do—it may be a bad idea to venture into a MOA VFR at all. Here's why: In 1997, a 727 inbound to New York's JFK Airport from Puerto Rico was routed through an active warning area. The military dropped the ball in coordinating the flight's passage through the area with the controlling ARTCC. An F-16, which had evidently been in the area, was dispatched to intercept what was thought to be an unidentified aircraft. But of course, the airliner had TCAS and didn't want to be intercepted. This resulted in some spirited maneuvering by the airliner that put more than a few ripples on the Martinis in first class, while the F-16 pilot may have figured he had a live wire for a change. The fact that the incident occurred in solid IMC made it all the more interesting.

In the olden days, before Piper Archers and Bonanzas got TCAS, fighter pilots could sneak up in your six as you motored VFR through the MOA, center the pipper and roll away before you ever knew they were there. With the advent of TCAS, you're an active participant in the intercept problem, which is not necessarily a good thing.

Even if you operate near the edge of a MOA, you're at risk. "Spill outs" of highspeed military traffic beyond the confines of a MOA aren't uncommon and what's your TCAS going to do with a target descending vertically through your 12 o'clock at 10,000 FPM? The easy way not to have to find out is to avoid active MOAs in the first place—by a wide margin. Or, if you decide not to, accept the consequences. That's not an irrational tradeoff, but it does mean you sign up for the risk, however large or small. Or, if you happen to get jumped by an F-16, you could always substitute bravado for utter lack of defensive panache. You've still got your radio and since F-16s have VHF, key up and say something like: "Hey buddy, if I had 500 more knots, another bag of gas, hard points, a couple of Sidewinders and pulse-doppler radar, I'd teach you a lesson."

Not that any of this excuses the best and brightest flying around in rocket-powered recliners. No one could reasonably argue that it's a good idea for military aircraft to aggressively intercept civil airplanes pour le sport, but on the other hand, that's what fighter pilots do and in a MOA, you are on their turf.

If part of your safety matrix depends on military pilots following guidelines not to do this sort of thing or if you expect commanding officers to smack the knuckles of those who do, good luck. You're gonna need it. All others should follow Mr. Aykroyd's advice.

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