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Knowing the airspace you’re flying in is important as a pilot, and you don’t want to fly into restricted airspace. So why is there restricted airspace at all?

As a pilot, you never want to fly into airspace that you’re not familiar with, especially if it’s restricted, or worse, prohibited. This is why it’s important that you carefully plan your trip and always remain in contact with Air Traffic Control. But if it’s so bad to fly into restricted airspace, you might be wondering why it even exists in the first place.

Restricted airspace is often put in place to reduce or prevent air traffic from flying over something. This could be for military operations, large events, environmental reasons, and more. Note that you can fly through restricted airspace with clearance from the FAA and/or ATC.

What is restricted airspace? This is a question that all up-and-coming pilots will ask at some point, so let's make sure you know everything about it before you take to the skies. In this article, we will discuss why restricted airspace exists and how pilots can avoid flying in it. We'll also take a look at what happens if you do fly into restricted airspace without clearance from Air Traffic Control (ATC).

At SkyTough, we want to put out the best content we possibly can so that our readers get exactly what they’re looking for. As enthusiasts ourselves, we’ve been in your shoes and have wondered the same things about restricted airspace, so we know where you’re coming from. By combining our own knowledge with extensive research, I’m confident you’ll learn everything you want to know about restricted airspace below.

Table of contents


What is Restricted Airspace?

Before we get into the why about restricted airspace, let's start by talking about what restricted airspace even is in the first place. A lot of people get it confused with prohibited airspace, but that's a completely different thing that we'll touch on at the end of this article, and it's important to know the difference!

So what is restricted airspace?

In the United States, restricted airspace is airspace that has been set aside for activities that require a certain level of safety. These activities could be anything from military operations to aerial spraying. The main thing you need to know about restricted airspace is that it's off-limits to general aviation traffic unless you have specific permission from Air Traffic Control (ATC) to fly through it.

In short, you can just think of restricted airspace as a no-fly zone unless you have a reason to go through it. It can be restricted for a number of different reasons, and the same airspace does not stay restricted forever once it's denoted that way. So now that you have an idea about what restricted airspace is, let's get into why it's necessary.

Why Does Restricted Airspace Exist?

There are a number of reasons why restricted airspace might be put in place. As we mentioned before, one reason is to protect people who might be participating in activities that require a high level of safety. This could be anything from military training exercises to search and rescue operations. The idea is to keep as much air traffic out of the area as possible so that whatever's going on in that airspace (or the ground underneath it) can be uninterrupted.

Another reason that airspace might be restricted is to protect national security interests. This is especially true in the case of airspace near airports or other sensitive infrastructure. By keeping general aviation traffic out of these areas, it's more difficult for someone with malicious intent to cause harm.

Restricted airspace can also be put in place to protect the environment. For example, if there is an area where endangered animals live, the government might set up restricted airspace to keep people from disturbing them. By preventing air traffic from reaching certain areas where these endangered species live, they might be able to thrive and rebuild.

In short, there are a variety of reasons why restricted airspace might be put in place, and it can change depending on the situation. It's important for pilots to be aware of where restricted airspace is so that they can avoid it unless they have ATC permission to enter it and fly through it.

Will ATC Keep You Out of Restricted Airspace?

One of the many good things about always keeping in contact with ATC is that they will do their best to keep you out of restricted airspace. If you're flying in an area where there is restricted airspace, ATC will work with you to make sure that you're not going to enter it. In some cases, they might even be able to give you clearance to fly through the airspace if they know that it's safe for you to do so.

All of this is a given for anything flying Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) since you'll always be in contact with ATC at all times and they'll be tracking your flight as you go. But if you're flying under Visual Flight Rules (VFR), then you might not necessarily be directed by ATC. That said, even under VFR, you can still request tracking from ATC and be in communication to ensure you don't enter restricted airspace.

What Happens if You Fly Through Restricted Airspace?

I’m sure you’ve seen movies before where someone flies into restricted airspace only to be intercepted by a military fighter jet and directed to leave immediately. Is this really what happens in the real world, or is this just Hollywood dramatization? Unfortunately, flying into restricted airspace can be a pretty big deal, and not in a good way for you, though fighter jet interception is not a guarantee.

Oftentimes, the penalty will depend on the reason that the airspace is restricted in the first place. If, for example, it's restricted for any sort of military operation or over the White House, then there is actually a chance that military aircraft will intercept you and direct you to leave the airspace. If you happen to be transponding when you enter it, there's a chance that you might just get notified that you've entered restricted airspace and you can just leave with no further issue.

As you can see, the reaction from the FAA, ATC, or the military will greatly depend on why the area is restricted. Also, keep in mind that you should always know where the restricted airspace is on your flight path before you take off. You can't really "unknowingly" fly into restricted airspace, that would be more of a negligence thing!

Restricted Airspace vs Prohibited Airspace

Lastly, let's talk about the most common confusion that people have with restricted airspace. That is, of course, prohibited airspace. As you might be able to tell from the words themselves, restricted airspace is not the same as prohibited airspace.

Restricted airspace is just that, restricted. You might be able to fly through it if you have the proper permissions or clearances. Prohibited airspace, on the other hand, is exactly what it sounds like, you are not allowed to fly through it under any circumstances.

Prohibited airspace is usually put in place for national security reasons, and flying through it will almost immediately lead to a visit from military aircraft and you'll be immediately directed to leave. If for any reason you are unable to communicate with these aircraft or you do not leave the prohibited airspace, they will not hesitate to engage. If this is avoided altogether, you will likely face severe fines and possibly even jail time.

So while flying through restricted airspace is a big no-no, flying through prohibited airspace is one of the absolute last things you want to do as a pilot. Always know your airspace and be safe out there!