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Special Use Airspaces In The USA

There’s a saying, or at least there should be, in American aviation, and it goes something like this: “Just one F-16 streaking at Mach speed 500 feet over your head can ruin your day.” It was for this very reason that my buddy Kees and I were somewhat alarmed last autumn when we were informed by ATC that the MOA we were about to enter was active down to 10,000 feet. At the time, we were level at 9,500.

Heck, even if I didn’t know what an MOA was, I’d have requested a lower altitude – say, 5000 feet lower. Given the American penchant for acronyms, for all one knows MOA could stand for “Mushed on Arrival”. But of course, MOA stands for Military Operations Area, and as one would suspect, the United States is particularly chock full of active MOAs, apparently allowing US armed forces to practice dropping large bombs into small pickle barrels from unusual attitudes and at high speed.

One must also take special note of the differences between all the so called Special Use Airspaces, or SUAs: MOAs, Warning Areas, Restricted Areas, Prohibited Areas, and the ever-so homey-sounding Controlled Firing Area. All of these SUAs are covered under Part 73 of the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR).


According to the latest Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), an MOA is “…airspace established outside of Class A Airspace area to separate or segregate certain nonhazardous military activities from IFR traffic and to identify for VFR traffic where these activities are conducted.”

Remember that activities that are “nonhazardous” from the military’s point of view (they refer to planes not dropping bombs or firing missiles, but rather merely performing aerobatic or abrupt maneuvers at alarmingly high rates of speed) are rather more hazardous than the conditions to which your typical VFR pilot is accustomed.

But this does not mean that you cannot fly in an MOA – you can, but you’d be a fool not to check on the latest information about activity within it. Fortunately, MOAs are indicated on Sectional, VFR Terminal Area, and Enroute Low Altitude Charts (see Box), and when you’re within 100 miles of one, any pilot can get the skinny on activity by contacting the local Flight Service Station (tune your radio to 122.0).

FSS will give you information about activities, or scheduled activities in the MOA in question. Even if the MOA is active, you still may be perfectly capable of flying through – FSS will have information on the “operations floor” of the activity, and let you know, for example, that it’s safe to enter at the time you call as long as you stay below a certain altitude. Heed this advice.

Even if you have contacted FSS, you are also expected to contact the MOA’s controlling authority before you enter an active MOA.

Warning Areas
Warning Areas, denoted by a dark blue hatched line, and noted with the letter ‘W”, denote areas along the three nautical mile limit around the US coastline – areas in which US armed forces or NASA may be conducting operations that could have infelicitous effects on one’s GA aircraft.

For the Mother Lode of Warning Areas, take a gander at the Jacksonville, VFR Florida sectional, whose entire coastline is one long blue hatched area from north to south, with individual Warning Areas within the larger, Warning Mother Ship. This is because Florida’s coast is particularly important the US, for air force, naval and NASA activities (see the box).

You may fly into a Warning Area that is not active; see the box for information.

Restricted Areas
These are essentially Warning Areas on the ground as opposed to in international waters, and similarly marked with a number referencing the SUA legend (see box). The threats within a Restricted Area include gunfire, aerial gunfire or missile and (ahem) guided missile launches, any of which could crimp your style. As with Warning Areas, you may fly through Restricted Areas when they are not active. Be certain!

Prohibited Areas
The USA only has a few “No Fly Zones”, currently established in Washington, D.C.; Kennebunkport, Maine; Waco, TX, Thurmont, Maryland; Amarillo, Texas; and Mount Vernon, Virginia. These too are marked by dark blue hatched lines, and the word Prohibited, with a number beginning with P. (See box) According to the FAR, “No person may operate an aircraft within a prohibited area unless authorization has been granted by the using agency.” FAR Section 73.85 defines the “Using agency” as “…the agency, organization or military command that established the requirements for the prohibited area.” FAR Sections 73.87 through 73.99 define designated prohibited areas.

Note too, that Prohibited Areas change from time to time.

Controlled Firing Areas
The best part of Controlled Firing Areas isn’t what they are – areas in which military types are firing all sorts of cool stuff all over the place – but rather what they are not: a threat to you. Under the terms of this SUA, and what makes it different from all other SUAs, any aircraft spotted – either by a plane spotter or radar – means that all activities within the CFA is immediately halted. So insignificant to pilots is the CFA that they are not even listed on charts – we just thought you’d like to know about them!

Having all this information in the recesses of your mind is fine and good, but put it to use to avoid inadvertently violating an SUA. Before getting your standard Weather Briefing (see related article), study the sectional chart of your intended route, and ask the briefer specifically about any SUAs you might approach to see if they are active. Check the NOTAM’s (Notices to Airmen) – your briefer should do it as part of the standard briefing, but if he or she doesn’t, make sure you ask.

One other phenomenon in the states are TFRs – Temporary Flight Restrictions. These are temporary designations of an area as restricted or, more likely, prohibited, sue to any number of reasons. It could be because of flooding or other natural disaster. A TFR is put in place when a plane crash – such as EgyptAir or the John F Kennedy accident – results in heavy recovery activity. They’re slapped on any area in which heavy small plane and helicopter activity is occurring, such as the American football Super Bowl. And TFRs are put in place whenever the President of the United States pops down to the corner store – wherever the convoy is, there’s a TFR. TFRs are covered in FAR part 91.137.


“Tulsa Clearance Delivery, Warrior eight-three-three-zero-uniform depart runway three-six right, turn right heading one-two-zero via Fort Smith VOR and Little Rock VOR, climb and maintain 7500 feet, contact Tulsa Departure Control on one-one-niner-point-one, squawking one-seven-niner-three,”

“Cherokee eight-three-three-zero-uniform, readback correct, contact ground control one-two-one-point-niner when ready.”

So begins a standard VFR flight from Tulsa International Airport to Memphis, Tennessee in a Warrior. If you think the above is more involved than the average VFR flight in the UK, you’re right.

And if you think any ATC you’ll come in contact with here will have much patience for a foreign pilot who botches any step of the process, I’ve got some land to sell you outside Kiev.

For example, in the first paragraph, note the fact that I identified myself as a Warrior, while ATC considered it their prerogative to “correctly” refer to me as a “Cherokee”.

The average UK-trained pilot might find some of this confusing, but it’s really a matter of coming to grips with the fact that they’re neither wrong nor right, just different. “It’s a little like driving on their freeways,” said Jim Hart, an Australian-licensed private pilot who recently flew a couple of dozen hours throughout the USA,

“If you’ve only been driving in England, driving on a US freeway can be a bit daunting. You have to familiarize yourself the local conditions – and at least in the air, you don’t have to worry about driving on the wrong side of the road!”

Hart said that one thing he noticed in the US was ATC’s willingness to “Fit in and accommodate even the smallest of airplane in the largest of airports. In the US, you can get clearance into JFK or Atlanta, whereas in Australia I’d be mad to ask a controller in Melbourne to let me pop in with my 172 or Warrior.”

Flight Following
In the US, most VFR pilots enjoy using a free service known as “Flight Following”, the rough equivalent of the UK’s “Radar Information Service”.

Any pilot can request Flight Following and it’s granted by ATC on a “if able” basis. If they have the time to deal with you (they most often do, even in crowded airspace) it means that your plane will be given a unique transponder “squawk” code, and ATC will “follow” you along your cross country journey (it’s not recommended for local flights).

En route, ATC will periodically check in with you to let you know of traffic in your area, or to ask you to modify your course for various reasons, and they will also “hand you off” to other controllers along your route. When this happens, your current controller will tell you whom to contact and on what frequency. Repeat the instructions, change frequencies and let the new guy know you’re there, “Miami Approach, Warrior eight-three-three-zero-uniform is with you, level at four thousand five hundred feet.”

Flight Following is a must if you’re flying over water, or between major destinations . And unlike a flight plan, it means that if your plane disappears, an Air Traffic Controller will immediately see it, try and contact you and, if he can’t, he’ll summon the cavalry immediately and to the place you last were seen, and not two hours after your intended arrival time and along the entire route of travel.

You may request flight following while in the air, or from the beginning of a flight while contacting Clearance Delivery, which neatly brings us to ground procedures.

Getting Clearance To Leave
In busier US airports, getting to the runway is generally a three-part procedure, and it helps to be calm, focused and use pencil and paper for all three parts. And whether you’re on the ground or in the air, the basic rule in the US is to say, Who You Are, Where You Are, and What You Want To Do:

On preparing for departure the first call, once you’ve listened to the weather, done your pre-flight checks, started your engine(s) and re-checked the weather to ensure you’ve got the latest information, is to contact Clearance Delivery, which will gather the basic information about your current location, your plane and your intentions, to pass on to ground control, the tower and departure control.

“Teterboro Clearance Delivery, Warrior eight-two-five-two-zulu at Millionaire FBO with information Foxtrot.”

“Warrior eight-two-five-two-zulu, go ahead.”

“Warrior eight-two-five-two-zulu is a PA-28-161, we’d like a north-east bound departure for a VFR flight to Poughkeepsie Municipal Airport, that’s Papa Oscar Uniform, four-thousand-five-hundred feet and request flight following.”

“Warrior eight-two-five-two-zulu, stand by”

Get that pencil ready. “Warrior eight-two-five-two-zulu, squawk one-five-two-three depart runway 19, maintain at or below one thousand feet and turn left heading three six zero.”

“Warrior eight-two-five-two-zulu, squawking one-five-two-three, will depart runway 19 and maintain at or below one thousand feet, turning left heading three six zero.”

“Warrior eight-two-five-two-zulu, readback correct, contact ground when ready.”

Get that frequency from an Airport Facilities Directory (AFD), because unless they’re feeling eleemosynary, Clearance Delivery won’t give it to you. When you contact them, remember that Ground Control knows where you are and what you want to do, but it’s nice to let them know where you are to reduce any possibility of confusion.

“Teterboro ground, Warrior eight-two-five-two-zulu at Millionaire.”

“Warrior eight-two-five-two-zulu, taxi to and hold short of Runway one niner at Bravo via Oscar.”

Repeat that you understand you’ve been told to hold short of the runway: “Warrior eight-two-five-two-zulu, taxi to and hold short of Runway one niner at Bravo via Oscar.”

Stay on the ground frequency during your taxi and hold short, and your engine run-up. When you’re ready to depart, contact the tower. “Teterboro tower, Warrior eight-two-five-two-zulu short of one niner at Bravo ready for departure.”

From this point on it’s pretty straightforward, but be on the lookout for instructions such as “Taxi into position and hold,” which means you’re clear to taxi onto the runway and line up on the center line in as few feet as possible, and then must hit the brakes.

This is usually due to traffic that’s just landed on the same runway (you’re waiting for him to be totally clear of the runway) or departing or landing traffic on an intersecting runway (much more on that later). Repeat the taxi into position and hold instruction!

Say What You Want, And All In One Go
“One difference I notice in the US,” said Carol Cooper, Chief Flying Instructor at Andrewsfield Aviation, “is that in the UK, when you make an initial call, I would then stop and wait for them to come back and ask me what I want.”

In the US, ATC likes you to try, whenever possible, to reduce the time required for the overall transaction to complete. Since in this century most radios work properly nearly all the time, the added time waiting for a “Go ahead” is considered to be unnecessary unless the channel is very busy.

So if the frequency is clear, and you’ve got flight following, just say what you want the first time round: “Jax Approach, Warrior eight-three-three-zero-uniform, level at seven-thousand-five-hundred, request descent to five-thousand-five-hundred to stay clear of clouds.”

If they’re busy, use the UK style and wait for the go-ahead.

At many larger airports in the US, Land And Hold Short Operations may be in effect. This is a complex issue and we’ll only touch on the basics here, but it is imperative to understand the implications of accepting a LAHSO clearance.

LAHSO occur when airports with intersecting runways allow traffic to arrive and depart on both runways. One plane will have to “hold short” of the intersecting runway. If that’s you, you need to get some information and examine your circumstances before accepting the clearance – you, as Pilot in Command, have the responsibility to determine whether a) you can comply and b) whether compliance would be safe. The controller issuing the clearance has nothing to do with it if you accept a LAHSO clearance.

How It Works
LAHSO are listed in an AFD, as are the available landing distances. But when LAHSO are in effect, it’s announced on the airport’s Automated Terminal Information System and by the controller. If a controller clears you to land on a runway and to hold short, you absolutely have the right and the duty to a) ask the available landing distance and/or b) refuse the clearance if you’re not 100% sure you can make it.

Once you accept, any mistake you make – if you put one millimeter of metal across the hold short line expect FAA goons to descend on you with great vigor and furious anger – is yours to live with. If you get it, do as short field a landing as you can possibly muster, and if you have any doubt whatsoever, do a go-around.

All of the above refers to controlled airports, but there’s another thing pilots will run into in the states, and that’s the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency system. CTAF is a brilliant convention which enables pilots around non-towered airports and in uncontrolled airspace to self-announce their intentions to the traffic in the area. The CTAF frequency for an area may be found on sectional maps and in AFDs.

An important thing to remember is that sometimes several non-towered airports will share a CTAF frequency, so it’s imperative that you announce where you are, what you’re doing, and again where you are for each CTAF transmission: “Venice traffic, Cessna 67547 five miles south of the field, entering a mid-field left downwind for runway 22, Venice traffic.”

Mid-Field Downwind
Regardless of the radio procedures around a field, entering the downwind leg of a traffic pattern is kosher in the US, but remember that you must enter it at a 45 degree angle and make sure that you’re at traffic pattern height when you get there. Non-towered airports in the US use a left-hand traffic pattern unless it’s specifically written down in the AFD, so if you’re approaching the field and can fly right into the correct side f a left-hand traffic pattern, just descend to traffic pattern altitude and enter the downwind at midfield on a 45.

The polite way to do it if you’re on the other side of the traffic pattern is to overfly the field 1000 feet above the traffic pattern altitude, fly outbound at that altitude for one to three minutes, descend to traffic pattern altitude, turn right and enter the midfield downwind on a 45-degree angle. The Unicom announcement, “Venice traffic, Cessna 67547 overflying the field at fifteen hundred feet southbound, then turning to enter a midfield downwind for runway 22, full stop landing, Venice traffic.

“Brits in the US,” said Flyer publisher Ian Saeger, “especially around Florida, where there are quite a few fields with the same Unicoms frequency, tend to forget that if you don’t say the airport at the beginning and the end of an announcement then the announcement does as much good as a a chocolate teapot.”

Lights Up
One final word on radios in the US: wanna feel powerful? Fly by a non-towered field at night (presuming, of course, your certificate allows night flying), tune into the CTAF frequency and key your mike seven times in rapid succession. Poof: the runway lights come on, in all their glory. Key another three times and you dim them to half intensity. And another three times and they turn off.

And they though the best part of flying in the US was the price!

VFR Sectional SUA Symbology

Staring at an American VFR Sectional, it’s nice to know what to look for in the category of, “Things denoting places I shouldn’t be”. Here’s a primer:

MOAs On VFR Sectional charts, an MOA is denoted by a hatched magenta line surrounding the area. On the inside cover or bottom margin of your sectional, you’ll see a Special Use Airspace (SUA) section legend. MOAs are listed at the bottom of this legend, separate from all other SUAs, in magenta ink, along with the altitude at which and time the MOAs are used and the controlling agency. The altitude listed on the sectional refers to the “floor”, or lowest altitude, of the MOA, and the MOA will extend to but not include flight level 180 unless otherwise indicated on the chart.

Warning Areas Warning Areas are marked with a hatched dark blue line on sectionals, and listed in a section combined with SUAs other than MOAs. Next to the Hatched Blue line on your chart will be a number (for example, on the Jacksonville, FL sectional, a large one is W-497A). This refers to the SUA legend, where you will see the Warning Area, the affected altitudes, times of use, and controlling agency information.

Restricted Areas Again, denoted by a hatched dark blue line and referring to the SUA legend in the margin, Restricted Areas are numbered (see R-2932 on Jacksonville Sectional), and the SUA legend contains affected altitudes, times of use, and controlling agency information.

Prohibited Areas Again, denoted by a hatched dark blue line and referring to the SUA legend in the margin, Prohibited Areas are numbered (see P-47on Dallas-Ft Worth Sectional or P-56 on Washington Sectional), and the SUA legend contains affected altitudes, times of use, and controlling agency information. Many are continuously restricted, supplemented by NOTAMS (Notices to Airmen) issued from time to time expanding the territory covered. For example, during the Presidential Inauguration or the 50th Anniversary of NATO, the P-56 area was expanded to cover essentially the entire Washington, DC area.

An American Pilot In Europe

Flying over the verdant rolling hills of the Italian countryside, circling the ancient hilltop village of Urbino (birthplace of the painter Raphael), I looked at my wife, Corinna, and remembered just what it was that made me want to get that licence in the first place.

Every year, while thousands of licensed American pilots vacation abroad, few think of exploring the European skies. But in much of Europe, US pilots can easily rent a plane and make daytime VFR flights as Pilot In Command.

The linguistically challenged will be able to communicate: ATC, rental companies, instructors and even ATIS and AWAS all communicate in English.

A walletful of greenbacks doesn’t hurt. Anyone who’s ever filled up in a European gas station knows fuel prices over here are out of Mad Max: avgas runs about US$5.25 (you read that right, over five bucks a gallon). Hourly prices for plane rental can be almost double what they are in the States.

But what’s the price tag on an aerial trip up the Rhine, over Stonehenge, or around a castle? It’s the trip of a lifetime.

The ICAO Chicago Convention says licensees from contracting states (including all European nations and the USA) are permitted to fly in other contracting states. The issue of national sovereignty is touchy in Europe, but if you have a valid FAA PPL and current medical certificate, you’re generally permitted to make daytime VFR flights.

In the UK and Holland, you can walk in to any flight school or Aero Club (as they’re called here) and after a checkout, rent a plane and zoom off into the sunset (though one zooms slightly differently over here. See Tips, below).

More rigidly legislated countries (like Germany, France and Spain), have red tape worthy of a Maastricht Treaty, but some advance work on your part can clear the way, at a minimum of fuss and expense, to recognition of your American PPL.

And good news: a certificate of recognition from any European Union member state is honored in all others.

So if you’re visiting, say, Germany, Spain and Italy, a certificate from one will be honored in any other. And best of all, the renter – usually a flight school or aero club that’s dealt with this situation before – will often assist with the paperwork as part of the rental fee. They will guide you through the process of getting a locally recognized “holiday license”.

You’ll usually need to send notarized copies of your PPL, medical, recent pages from your logbook, and your passport. Some countries, like Spain, also require a passport photo, so check whether you’ll need to send those.

Bring all of those items on your trip, too. And while we’re on what to bring, remember this: most planes here come equipped with just two headphones, so bring extra headphones if you’ll need them.

If you’re headed to the UK, Holland or Germany you can start checking into rentals and making reservations as little as a week before you arrive, but if you’re off to other countries start about six weeks in advance.

Renting a plane is almost as easy as it is in the USA, but there are differences. The best bet is to research using the search engines at flying websites, or by picking up flying magazines from the UK, such as Flyer ( or Pilot ( The back of these mags are packed with ads for flying schools, which almost always rent their airplanes.

Shop around! On a recent check of airports around Europe, I found major differences in rental prices, even in the same country. For example, I called Wycombe Air Centre (tel 011-44-149-444-3737), about 20 miles from Central London, and was quoted a price of 126 pounds (US$196) for a C-152 with an instructor, and 97 pounds (US$155) an hour for just the plane, wet, timing from brakes off to brakes on, including VAT (the notorious Value Added Tax). It was about US$10 extra for a C-172 with or without an instructor.

But a call to Andrewsfield Aviation Ltd (tel 011-44-137-185-6744), about 10 miles from London’s Stansted Airport, got quotes of 89.50 pounds (US$143) with an instructor and 75 pounds (US$120) without for a C-152, and 102 pounds (US$163) with and 93 pounds (US$149) without for a C-172, on the same terms.

The Pesaro Aero Club in Fano, Italy (tel 011-3907-2180-3941), demanded the most I’ve ever laid out: US$210 for an hour and 40 minutes of flying, including 40 minutes with the instructor for the checkout, in a C-152.

The Aerodrome Chateauroux Villers, in Saint Maur, France, (tel and fax 011-33-2-5436-6813) wanted 900 francs (US$138) with a (French language) instructor, and 744 francs (US$114) without one for a C-172.

But it can be cheaper (just a bit more than in the USA): Munich Flyers at Augsburg Airport, 45 minutes outside Munich (tel 011-49-89-6427-0761), gets DM240 (US$126) for a C-172 with an instructor, and DM 177 (US$95) without, including fuel, from wheels up to wheels down.

On that trip I took to Italy, I literally followed the low-flying planes I saw from the coastal road to the Pesaro Aero Club, on a grass strip just south of the city of Rimini. Showing my PPL and Medical at the flight school office, a teacher and I set off on a 40-minute checkout (really more of a brush-up on soft field landings and a lengthy description of the local airspace) and then I was off on my own, for a one-hour tour of the whole area.

A German instructor named Tom told me that he checks out people all the same way, even if it’s obvious they’ve been flying for years or are newly licensed.

“We do two traffic patterns,” he said, “to check their radio skills and landings, and then head for our practice area, where we do power-off and power-on stalls and steep turns. If they handle all that right, they’re on their own – and if not, they do an hour or two of brush-up lessons.”

I enjoy the rental checkride as much for the local air tour I get as I do for learning the different ways people teach flying in different countries (for example, in Germany, Tom wanted to see just the barest hint of an impending power-on stall, while my Italian instructor demanded – and demonstrated – something out of Snoopy and the Red Baron!).

The rental checkride is so important here because local regulations are dictated by many more idiosyncrasies and customs than in the USA. In the UK for example, noise abatement is so strict that procedures like, “On takeoff, make a right turn at 300 feet and head for the treeline before ascending,” and, “On downwind, approach from south of the village and then scoot round the village to the right and turn left again when you see the pub,” are more common than not.

And in Germany, where takeoffs and landings even on privately owned farms require clearance, strictly – even Germanly – regimented exits and entrances to the airport vicinity are required, using map points with names like Whiskey One and Echo One, as well as local conventions that aren’t even marked on the maps (see the box)!

The rental checkride’s good for learning all these, but even better is a visit to the tower. If you plan ahead, you can make the visit when you arrive – get off the commercial flight and head upstairs for a half-hour chat with the controllers. They’ll fill you in on restrictions, give you local flying tips, telephone numbers for weather forecasts, useful web addresses and tell you where you can buy charts of the area locally.

Most Americans are horrified to learn that practically every single airfield in Europe charges some sort of landing fee. In most airports it’s waived if you’re taking a local flight, but if you take a day trip to somewhere, be prepared to fork over anywhere from US$10 to US$25 in landing fees at the destination airport.

“The airspace is fairly restricted here compared to the USA,” said Carol Cooper, Chief Flying instructor at Andrewsfield Aviation.

“For your own sake, study the map, and the airspace where you can and can’t go – which is much different around here.

“Experience obviously matters, and radio navaids can help, but England’s a small place, and you’ve got to watch your proximity to Stansted, Heathrow and Gatwick,” she continued, referring to the fact that all those airports’ airspace is completely off-limits to VFR pilots in single-engine planes without a special VFR clearance.

Which you almost certainly won’t get!

Noise abatement rules dictate that you avoid town centers and other populated areas.

Radio work is also different, and Europeans seem to think the American practice of repeating the last three registration numbers as acknowledgment of an ATC directive just a bit too, well…American! You’re expected to repeat all the instructions given you by ATC, each and every time.

And finally, if you’ll be travelling outside larger cities, brush up on your soft-field landings and takeoffs: many airports have grass strips.

Note that anywhere in Europe your American license gives you the same rights at you have at home if you are flying in an N-registered (US-owned and registered) aircraft. Regardless of registration, you need no holiday license or any additional paperwork other than your valid PPL, valid medical and pilot’s logbook to fly as PIC from the UK or the Netherlands (Holland) – even if you land in another country.

For other countries you will often need a holiday license, recognizing your American license. The most straightforward agency to deal with in Europe is Germany’s Regierung Oberbayern Luftamt Suedbayern, Maximillianstrasse 39, 80538 Munich (tel 011-4989-2176-2523). Send them a letter, telling them the dates of your travel in Europe, a request for a Holiday License and photocopies of your PPL, Medical Certificate and the most recent page of your logbook, along with a copy of the data pages of your passport. The holiday license they will send you (Bescheinigung ueber die Allgemeine Anerkennung eines auslaenden Lueftfahrerscheins; allow four weeks for processing) is good for six months and costs about US$30. It is valid everywhere in Western Europe, allowing you to rent nationally registered planes.

In France, contact Direction Generale de l’Aviation Civile (tel 011-331-5809-4321, fax 011-331-5809-3636), License Office, 50 rue Henri Farman, 75015 Paris

Andrewsfield Aviation Ltd (tel 011-44-137-185-6744), Saling Airfield, Stebbing, Dunmow, Essex CM6 3TH England

Munich Flyers Flugschule, GmbH, (tel 011-49-89-6427-0761) Hochederstrasse 2, 81545 Muenchen, Germany

Pesaro Aero Club (tel 011-3907-2180-3941) Via Dela Colonna 130, Fano, Italy 61032

Aerodrome Chateauroux Villers (tel and fax 011-33-2-5436-6813), 36250 Saint Maur, France

Journey To Prague

American pilots in Europe are constantly amazed that, in a Skyhawk, you’re often just two hours away from another country. (See related story on how an American with a PPL can rent and fly airplanes in Europe.)

Ten years ago, at the dusk of the Cold War, a trip from Munich to Prague, one of Old Europe’s most beautiful and elegant cities, would have been unheard of. But on a recent sunny autumn afternoon, two friends and I made that two-hour flight. It was both a piece of cake and the thrill of a lifetime.

The Route From Munich to Prague direct is just under two hours, but I’d thought up an interesting little sidetrip to Ceske Budojovice (Budweis). This would be both a leg-stretcher as well as a pilgrimage of sorts to one of beer-lovers’ most holy spots: birthplace of the Czech Budweiser brewery. I figured on a brief stop there, and then we’d depart for the 35-minute leg to Prague.

The return flight would be direct. Nothing could be simpler.

Red Tape
In Europe, the radio work is still in English, and Jeppesen makes the maps in English, too. But the Red Tape Factor was becoming a supreme worry in making my flight plan, as I couldn’t seem to get a straight answer to the procedure for crossing the German/Czech border. Something about a NATO Identification Zone kept coming up, which sounded mildly alarming to say the least!.

In the end, after many phone calls and several blind leads, it turned out to be as simple as a flight from Miami to the Bahamas: a simple filing, in English, of an ICAO International Flight plan form.

Okay, the Czechs are a bit more procedural than their Bahamian counterparts, but it’s essentially the same thing: the plan must include your exact time, altitude and the place where you’ll cross the border. A little nervous about getting all that right, I held off on filing my plan until I picked up my plane at Munich Flyers Flight Club in Augsburg airport, just west of Munich. There I got a final weather briefing (confirming the predicted clear skies and 20kt headwind at 10,000 feet), and faxed off the plan.

I’d verified my intentions by phone with Prague Flight Information regarding the stop in Budweis, and had meticulously noted checkpoints along the entire route to ensure I crossed the border just where I said I would, about four miles north of Philippsreut, a village nestled in the Bavarian Forest.

I phoned Munich Flight Information right after filing my plan, and they assured me that everything was okay. With that, I got out Cessna D-EHMB, a 172, and was in the process of fueling when the airport loudspeaker blared, “Pilot of Cessna Delta-Echo Hotel Mike Bravo, contact Munich Information!”.

My flight plan, it seemed, had been ixnayed by Czech Authorities, who now said that there were no customs officials in Budweis – it was direct to Prague or nothing. The idea of hours of flight planning down the commode and then hastily planning a direct route to Prague while sitting in the cockpit didn’t strike me as particularly pleasant, but we reached a compromise: keep the original flight plan, but turn left over Budweis and head up to Prague.

Munich Airport – Europe’s busiest during peak hours – doesn’t provide flight following services as such, but would give me a transponder code and keep vague track of my progress, ensuring I didn’t venture into restricted airspace or veer glaringly off course.

And, I’m almost sad to report, the flight was almost extraordinary in its ordinariness.

I’d secretly hoped for bizarre instructions, exciting NATO complications and cloak-and-dagger intrigue – perhaps the odd MiG scramble at the border. But the flight was as routine as they come. Well, there was something: finding checkpoints was difficult because each and every town we flew over looked identical! Cluster of red-roofed houses with a church in the middle? Why, that’s clearly Dingolfing..or Straubing.. or Deggendorf ..or possibly Ingolstadt!!.

With the help of a goond flight plan (and, okay, a great GPS and the help of two very keen passenger/navigators), we reached the border transition area spot on time. Munich Flight information handed us off to Prague Information, who gave us permission to climb to 11,500 feet and cross the border. We were in!!.

To save a bit of time, they let us turn left heading 06 degrees on a beeline for Prague, rather than subjecting us to the farce of overflying the now forbidden city of Budweis.

Flight Level Five Five
English may be the language of the skies here, but you’d best speak very slowly and clearly: controllers are used to conversing with non-native speakers, who use a more formal – if stilted – version of the language.

Transition levels in Europe are different from those in the US, where it is above 18,000 feet. About 15 minutes south of Prague, at 9,500 feet, I had a little moment of confusion when the controller then told me to “descend to flight level five five.”.

I replied, thinking I was being clear, “Mike Bravo, leaving niner thousand five hundred for flight level five five, that’s five thousand five hundred feet”, and got back, “Cessna Mike Bravo, I say again, Flight Level Five Five.” .

Allrighty. “Mike Bravo is leaving niner thousand five hundred for flight level five five, that’s five thousand five hundred feet,” I said, slower and even clearer.

“Cessna Mike Bravo, I repeat again,” he said, audibly put out by my rebellious behavior, “descend to Flight Level Five Five.” .

We probably could have gone on all day like that had I not just shut up and said “Roger, Flight Level five five!” And descended to 5,500 feet.

Turns out that was the right thing to do for the wrong reason: As my friend Michel McAloon wrote to correct me, “In most ICAO countrues the published transition altitude may be as low as 3000 feet. Pilots when climnbing through the transition altitude are expected to change their altimiters to the QNE standard of 1013.25 hecopascals (29.92 inches Hg).

Buzzing The Rooftops
Despite that hiccup, things were going swimmingly, and having abandoned my flight plan I was happy to quit looking at the map and let the Prague controllers call my every turn. Prague Info handed me off to Prague tower, and I saw the city just ahead, but I hadn’t ever landed there and couldn’t see the actual field, so I was a bit trepidatious. But I’d figured that, since they had me heading 06, I must be on a straight-in approach to runway 06, right?.

“Cessna Delta-Echo Hotel Mike Bravo, descend to maximum 2000 feet, QNH 1023 and turn left bearing 310 degrees”.

Hmm. Confirm the altimeter setting and..that seems a little, uh, low, as I’m about 500 feet above the ground at this point. My front seat passenger, a Brit, says alto voce “I can see bloody dogs on the ground we’re so bloody low!”.

He’s right, but this is seriously fun; actually instructed to barrel in low over the hillsides and rooftops, with the city of Prague now off my right wing and my passengers boisterously humming Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries.

The hills dropped away and we were now at the relatively sane height of about 800 feet above the rooftops. I finally saw the airport just ahead, but we were number two after an Austrian 737. The tower asked us to, “make now a left turn for one orbit” (more controllers’ stilted English), then to fly right along over runway 31, turning left just past it to enter the left downwind for runway 06.

I’ve gotten used to shorter, European airstrips so I put it down gently right on the numbers. I was in the midst of telling my passengers, “On behalf of Air Nick, I’d like to welcome you to Prague” when I noticed we could have taken off and landed again in the distance it took for us to trundle over to Taxiway Charlie – Runway 06 is 12,188 feet!.

And then began the rock star treatment: the Follow-Me car was a nice touch, and our plane was met by a minivan bearing the gracious Mr Vlastimil Sovak of the Czech Airports Authority Handling Agency who cheerfully offered hotel booking assistance, information on getting to town by taxi or public transport, and then whisked us off to our own private customs and passport control while our plane was refueled. He even made the exchange office employee cut short his lunch hour so we could get busfare to the center!.

Prague is a spectacularly gorgeous city, and it’s so old its “new town” dates to the 15th century. Alas, flying directly over the spectacular city center is forbidden.

20 minutes after leaving the airport, just outside the Staromestska subway station, we were treated to a sweeping view across the Charles Bridge to the magnificent Prague castle, home to Czech royalty since the 9th century. It seemed that around each corner was another architectural masterpiece!.

We spent the evening wandering Prague’s ancient cobblestone streets, and shopping for the justifiably famous Czech glassware. That night, while I caught up on sleep, my two passengers set out to do the town’s lively bars and clubs, sampling the famous beer and, I’m told, getting treated to several on the strength of the tale of their journey.

The next morning we headed back to Augsburg with no barreling, no low passes, and nary a MiG to be seen. With the exception of a slight detour over a restricted area just inside the German airspace I’d somehow (ahem!) overlooked in my flight plan, the return flight was, technically, eventless.

Isn’t it amazing how technically eventless flights can leave you with memories for a lifetime?