Steering Clear of Rocket Launch TFRs

The growth of commercial and government space operations result in more frequent TFRs near launch areas. Here’s how they compare to traditional TFRs.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket launches from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41, March 12, 2015, Florida. [Courtesy: NASA]

While seeing a rocket launch from any perspective can be a sight to behold, there’s nothing quite like viewing such an event from an airborne perspective.

Pilots who have flown in central Florida may have coordinated their flight planning to coincide with a launch from Cape Canaveral. It’s not uncommon to have several aircraft buzzing just outside the Cape’s restricted airspace, hoping to get a bird’s eye view of these impressive events. Those of us lucky enough to have been cleared for “The Shuttle Tour” over the Cape’s shuttle landing strip may struggle to find words to describe such an experience. 

Florida’s Space Coast, as well as many other locations in the U.S., are a hotbed of activity that often result in the activation of Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs). These no-access chunks of airspace seem more commonplace nowadays, and not just for space operations. Presidential visits, stadiums, and even Disney World have TFRs. So, are those TFRs situated over rocket launch areas any different from the garden variety surrounding sporting events?

TFR 101

Before diving into this question, let’s have a quick refresher on what a TFR is and what it’s not. First of all, we should remember they are a type of Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM), designating areas restricted to air travel due to a hazardous condition, a special event, or a general warning for the entire FAA airspace. 

According to the FAA, TFRs are “issued for safety or security purposes.” They are designed to keep aircraft away from such things as natural disasters, certain major sporting events, and emergency or national security situations. Most of the time, they are published well before a scheduled event. Natural disasters or other unforeseen situations are a different story.

TFRs tend to vary somewhat in their dimensions, and the government has a specific set of guidelines in place to determine how they are constructed. In FAA lingo, TFRs “should be appropriately scaled, operationally aligned, and managed to mitigate adverse impact to the National Airspace System (NAS).” 

For the rest of us, this means they try to only restrict the airspace that is required to ensure the security of the person or event in mind. 

One thing to remember is that some TFRs are static, while others are not. Some pilots forget those designated for VIPs may have a “ring” of airspace accompanying the “big kahuna” wherever they go. TFRs for wildfires may expand as the fire grows. The same goes for those supporting disaster recovery efforts.

Rocket launching activities in Brownsville, Texas, necessitate TFRs . [Courtesy: FAA]

Space Operations TFRs

With our refresher, we can see why some TFRs can be different in size than others. Referring back to the feds, FAA Advisory Circular No: 91-63D clearly states that restrictions “are to be kept to a minimum area and duration necessary to address the specific situation.” 

This may explain why TFRs around space operations cover much more territory than ones protecting an NFL Sunday afternoon game. While the wind can carry a field goal kick pretty high, it’s hard to match the performance of Elon Musk’s rockets blasting into space.

So, how large can they get? Typically, we’ll find those TFRs in the Cape Canaveral area covering the surface to FL 180. However, AC 91-63D reminds us that TFRs “may be developed with the actual altitude of the proposed space operation or rocket launch/recovery.” 

For this reason, it’s not uncommon to find restrictions at altitudes above FL 600 since this requires transitioning controlled airspace, and space vehicles typically fly at altitudes above FL 600.

In terms of width, the dimensions can vary based on location and the type of activity. If rocket boosters are scheduled to be recovered in the ocean, you can bet the airspace limitations will stretch off the coast and migrate into warning areas. This is commonplace in California and Florida.

Space Operation TFRs can cover a lot of airspace.. [Courtesy: FAA]

‘Boldly Going’ Around TFRs

Rocket launches always draw lots of attention, posing two risks: congested airspace full of airborne space aficionados and an active TFR, which can ruin your day if you stray into it. Does this mean that you’ll be shot down if you enter the forbidden airspace? That’s not likely unless you’re posing a direct threat. 

Depending on the level of incursion, you may have the FAA file some kind of administrative action, or if the situation warrants it, you’ll get the opportunity to fly formation with intercepting military aircraft. Yes, having an F-16 off your right wing can be pretty cool, but the subsequent paperwork is a nightmare. Planning ahead will help keep you safe and out of trouble.

Also, keep in mind that there are ways to fly in some TFRs under specific provisions. Filing a flight plan, constantly communicating with ATC, and not loitering within a particular chunk of airspace may get you a green light to transition parts of this airspace. Do some research and talk to your local CFI to get up to speed on TFRs. As Star Trek’s Spock would say, “It’s the logical thing to do.”  

Arturo has a strong background in aviation and communications. As a graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, he has held key training and safety management roles at Airbus and the Experimental Aircraft Association. His training experience includes Aviation English program development for pilots, air traffic controllers, and flight attendants while also overseeing ground school training for a local flight academy. Outside his aviation work, Arturo is a certified communications facilitator providing business communication training to Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and high-profile thought leaders in diverse industries.

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