Sky Kings: A Sporting Chance

Up close and personal with the military.

Sky Kings Military
Staying out of active military training routes isn't always easy. There are hundreds of them all across the country.Shutterstock

“You just flew through a military training route.” The controller was agitated. Since whatever had happened had happened, and we were already within 10 miles of Thermal’s nontowered airport, John told the controller we were leaving his frequency to get airport advisories. John then switched our transponder to 1200, the VFR squawk, and changed frequencies.

As captain of our two-pilot crew, I had asked John earlier to cancel IFR so we could switch to the common traffic advisory frequency. When John canceled, the controller said, “Keep the same squawk code and stay with me for advisories.” It wasn’t what we wanted, but the controller was so busy that there wasn’t time to talk to him about it.

The controller obviously had a ­different view of the risks of a midair collision than we did and had wanted to keep us with him to give us advisories. Maybe he was ­concerned about the military training route, but he didn’t tell us about it until we had passed it. Plus, we had a traffic collision avoidance system, and it didn’t show any traffic in our immediate area.

In our view, the biggest risk of a collision was with traffic at the airport, and the risk was increasing as we got closer to it. Our concern was heightened because we were flying our Falcon Jet. Even at our slowest, we would still overtake most airplanes around the airport. It was high time to change frequencies. We had no obligation to stay with the controller, and it was, we thought, better risk management to be monitoring the common traffic advisory frequency and announcing our position.

When we got on the ground, the fixed-base operator came running out with a message for us to call Los ­Angeles Air Route Traffic Control Center. This was not good news. We were on our way to the Flying Aviation Expo in Palm Springs, and this was not a promising start to what was supposed to be a fun weekend.

Being a well-trained copilot, John offered to make the call. The person on the other end of the line at Center wanted to know why he was calling. Frankly, John didn’t really know. Apparently the controller had missed our call to say that we were leaving the frequency, and even though we had changed to the VFR squawk, he wanted to make it clear to us that he felt we should have waited for his acknowledgement before leaving the frequency. Plus, I had the suspicion that his annoyance had something to do with our not taking the time to discuss the military training route.

To add to my feelings of guilt, neither John nor I knew about the military training route. Had we not surveyed the trip adequately? Had we taken an unreasonable risk without even being aware of it?

When I looked on a sectional chart, I discovered that, sure enough, there was a military training route about 10 miles south of the airport, and we had crossed over the top of it. It was labeled with a four-digit number, indicating it was limited to 1,500 feet agl and below. We were considerably higher than that when we crossed the route, but it was disturbing that we hadn’t even known about it.

It was also labeled “VR,” which meant that military operations were restricted to visual conditions. Since it was a VR route, the military pilots would provide their own separation from other aircraft simply by looking out the windscreen — a neat trick at the speeds for which they are authorized, up to 480 knots.

Why didn’t we know about this route? Well, except for the last dozen or so miles to the airport, our flight was on instruments. We were using Jeppesen IFR charts, which don’t show military training routes.

When I checked the government IFR Enroute Low Altitude Chart, I found that the routes are not shown there either, unless they are IR routes or VR routes that can have operations above 1,500 feet agl. Military pilots on IR routes can fly in instrument conditions, and they receive normal ATC separation services. There was an IR route close to but not on our flight path, and this may be the one that had actually concerned the controller.

Still, the military training routes caught us by surprise. Should we have checked for them on a sectional chart as part of our preflight briefing? Well, possibly, but because we were going IFR, we’d be above the VR routes, and military pilots on the IR routes would be talking to ATC. In retrospect, I believe we hadn’t taken an unreasonable risk.

However, I did realize something new. When you fly at 1,500 feet agl and below, where virtually all VR military training routes are located, you are at risk. Plus, IR routes are a risk at higher altitudes if you are not talking with ATC. In those cases, checking the sectional chart to see if you will be crossing any routes and checking their expected status seems like a good idea.

But staying out of active military training routes isn’t always easy. There are many hundreds of these routes all across the country. They are shown on the sectional chart in light gray and are easy to overlook. Plus, on a trip of any reasonable length, you will likely cross several. For instance, on the 106-mile flight from Blythe, California, to Kingman, Arizona, you will cross eight military training routes.

If you get your weather briefing by phone from 1-800-WXBRIEF, the briefer can tell you which of the military training routes on your course are scheduled to be active. You can get the same information online at sua.faa.gov.

But a planned route doesn’t become active until the military pilot activates it while airborne. On VR routes, ­military pilots call Flight Service when they enter the route, and then again when they leave the route. If they can’t reach Flight Service at the time, a friend who is retired Air Force tells me they fly it anyway.

Although the military pilots do talk to ATC while on IR routes, on VR routes they do not. Our best hope of knowing the real-time status of a VR route in the air is to call Flight Service — provided both we and the military pilot are able to reach it. So, calling Flight Service can load the odds in our favor. It would be very difficult to spot a jet in camouflage that’s doing 480 knots.

Over the years, there have been some instances of collisions on military training routes and damage to general aviation aircraft due to wake turbulence, but, surprisingly, not many. I guess you can attribute that to the big-sky-little-airplane effect when away from airports.

When these incidents happen, the National Transportation Safety Board report invariably faults the general aviation pilot for inadequate preflight action. There has been no mention of the fact that the military aircraft were vastly exceeding the 250-knot speed limit, which is considered to be the maximum safe speed for everyone else below 10,000 feet.

Even a pilot who calls Flight Service to learn that there is a jet on the route and then exercises the recommended “extreme vigilance” would seem to have a slim chance of actually being able to evade a jet that’s traveling at 480 knots. It appears to be an elaborate and burdensome but ineffective risk-management system.

The low number of accidents seems to confirm that the probability of mishap is very low. On the other hand, the consequences are terrible. I wonder if the system would be made more effective by having military pilots on VR routes announce their presence to ATC rather than Flight Service. This would at least provide real-time, rather than delayed, information to general aviation ­pilots. It might give us more of a sporting chance.

All this has given me an increased awareness of the risks from military training routes when I’m flying 1,500 feet agl and below. Plus, I now realize that the current system of checking with Flight Service doesn’t seem to provide much actual risk mitigation. I hate to say it, but this is yet another reason to fly at least above 1,500 feet agl and to maintain contact with ATC. This makes me a little sad. Flying low over unpopulated areas and surveying the ground below in silence is one of the great sinful joys of general aviation flying.