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A Sporting Chance

Up Close and Personal with the Military

Article appeared in Flying Magazine February, 2016 by Martha King –Martha_04

“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 non-towered 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 earlier asked John to cancel IFR so we could switch to the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency. When John cancelled, 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 there wasn’t time to talk to him about it.

The controller obviously had a different view of the risks of a mid-air collision than we, 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 were past 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 geometrically as we got closer to it. Our concern was heightened because we were flying our old Falcon Jet and 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 based operator came running out with a message for us to call Los Angeles Center. This was not good news. We were on our way to the Flying Aviation Expo and this was not a promising start to what was supposed to be a fun weekend.

Being a well-trained co-pilot, 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 saying we were leaving the frequency, and even though we had changed to the VFR squawk he wanted to make it clear to us 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 about the incident, 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 just about 10 miles south of the airport, and we had crossed over the top of it. It was labeled with a 4-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.

Military Training Routes

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, of 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 was actually concerning 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 pre-flight briefing? Well possibly, but since 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 flown, they are a real risk. Plus, IR routes are a risk at higher altitudes if you are not talking with ATC. In those cases, checking out the chart to see if you will be crossing any and checking out their expected status seems like a good idea.

But it isn’t easy. There are many hundreds of these routes all over 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 8 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 used. You can get the same information online at–if you have Internet Explorer 10, or Firefox.

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 on IR routes the military pilots do talk to ATC, 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—if both we and the military pilot are able to reach them. So calling Flight Service can load the odds in our favor. It would be very difficult to spot a jet in camouflage doing 480 knots.

Over the years there have been on Military Training Routes some instances of collisions, 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 away from airports.

When these incidents happen, the National Transportation Safety Board report invariably faults the general aviation pilot for inadequate pre-flight action. There have been no mentions of the fact the military aircraft were vastly exceeding the 250-knot speed limit that 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 one 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.


  1. Deon

    The Routes are individually operated through one of the local military air bases, which schedule and ‘own’ the route.

  2. Bud Risser

    I live in St. Pete FL, and have a vacation home on Smith Mnt Lake Virginia. The lake is created by a dam on the gap at Smith Mountain. Look it up – 45 miles SW of Roanoke. Fighter pilots regularly make runs on the dam. We know when the sound finally gets to us. I am a 50 year pilot with roughly 5000 hours. I always worry about someone flying low over the lake on a sight seeing mission being taken out by a screaming fighter. Lets be honest – none of us will do all that we should to find out if these areas are hot. In part that falls on the government and the DOD making it so damn difficult. I have no idea which branch of the service is doing the strafeing. Weekends it is likely the Guard. Weekdays the AF. Doesn’t matter. If they hit you, you and your passengers are dead regardless. The practical solution is to require the pilots to be in contact with ATC so that real time protection is available. Why do I worry? Remember I live in St. Pete? Sarasota is 35 miles south of us. A few years ago, some guy in a 172 ran into a jet on one of these routes. (yes – according to the press). He was killed, and the fighter and its pilot survived. You guessed it… no fault found for the guy going at high speed over a populated area. To you guys in the service… this is total BS. We deserve better. If you can’t fix it, then do it in a SIM, or in a MOA. There is no need to put decent citizens at risk. The only reason you get a way with it is that the accidents are infrequent. That will be small comfort if you are the guy who hits the next 172.

    • Chris

      Why will you “not do all that you should” to find out if someone is flying the route if you are so worried about a midair? All you have to do is call your FSS and ask…. If a jet is flying an “IR” low level they are in contact with ATC the entire time. If they are flying a VR route they will be up with the FSS and they will be calling their position on the route. While they will most likely be transmitting on UHF, if you are up on the FSS they will help you deconflict. Military pilots are not allowed to “fly high speed over a populated area” – they would not do so randomly. I think you may not understand the purpose of a low level route. I would encourage you to be in contact with your FSS whenever you are close to a low level route.

  3. Robert Thomas

    Will military AC be required to comply with ADS-B? If so, I can see this as a compelling reason to upgrade. They should see you and if equipped for “in” you should surely see them.

  4. Dave Holmes

    I wish I had this video yesterday – I have given a talk at two EAA Chapter meeting concerning Military Routes. Here at Lake City, Florida, we have MTRs all over the place.

  5. Chris

    As a professional military pilot and fan of the Kings I have several thoughts:

    1) In regard to Martha mentioning that the NTSB should note that military aircraft are exceeding the “speed limit” of 250 knots under 10,000: for GA pilots who are unaware, it is unsafe for fighter aircraft to operate at a “slow” (for them) airspeed, and these airspeed restrictions many times do not apply – especially at low altitude! Many fighter aircraft have a waiver from the FAA to fly at 300 knots under IFR control under 10,000 feet. The YouTube video posted is the Navy’s training aircraft for fighters (the T-45C) – it flies slow compared to actual Air Force and Navy fighter jets like the F-15,16, and 18. Those aircraft will most likely be flying at the maximum posted speed for those routes (in excess of 480 KTAS). This is how these aircraft operate to keep safe for they type of flying and tactics they are executing.

    2) To say that military aircraft would not state their intentions to ATC for a VFR route when flying VFR is not true for the pilots I fly with. Navy rules require aircraft to fly IFR to the “maximum extent practical”, and prudent pilots use flight following for VFR flights. Even with advanced radar, I will always elect to use flight following for the SA of other pilots as well as my own. On the route itself, flying fighter jets at low-altitude precludes my ability to focus on the radar a lot anyway. No military jet pilot I know would be flying through domestic airspace under VFR without flight following unless they were operating in a MOA or on a low-level route, in which they would have checked in with the controlling agency or FSS prior to entering that airspace. If a military pilot entered a route without clearance or proper scheduling and something unfortunate happened, it would not bode well for him/her.

    The upshot for me, as a military and GA pilot, is that Martha’s frustration with the cumbersome system of finding out route schedules and restrictions is merited, but you can say that with many FAA and government programs in general. She is wise to suggest flying above 1,500 feet AGL if you are in or around these routes, and brings up some good points regarding this regime of flying. I would add that it would also be wise to fly on weekends, as most government training takes place during the week. Like Martha said though, do contact ATC or the FSS and listen up for traffic – this is the most important thing to keep yourself safe! Despite what some may think, we are listening up to whatever FSS frequency that needs to be monitored – it’s our life on the line as well!

  6. Rev. Dennis Snyder

    I have been flying since 1972 and I must say there are so many changes in flying that the best pilots are the perpetual student pilots out there. My wish is that I lived closer to a good training facility to become that perpetual student. My gift of flying includes the joy of learning. Thank you for all of your continued insight.

  7. Richard Fechter

    Most of the items mentioned were correct. Getting reliable information on VR routes is difficult. I have seen routes that go as high as 10,000 MSL, which in that area would be about 9,000 AGL and I’ve also seen them as much as 50 miles wide. These altitudes and widths were taken off the internet after 911. I’ve talked to many agencies on where the common GA pilot can get this height/width information and none seem to know – just try asking your LM briefer for height/width information. Airplanes can go faster than 250 knots if the POH says they should for better handling. I’ve never seen any regulation on top speeds on VR or IR routes — and so 580 is possible (usually speeds are multiples of 60 knots for easier computing of miles per minute). Fighters with their nose-on to another airplane is very hard to see by the other airplane due to the fighter’s small cross-section. Then when it isn’t moving on your windscreen or coming via your many blind spots at 0.72 miles every 5 seconds — it makes see-and-avoid very difficult. Don’t think the fighters will have you on radar either. First their radar typically blanks out anything going slow, like a car or s GA airplane. Second the pilots are looking out the window — a lot, and very little (if at all) at their radar.

    • David T

      Please: cross Military Training Routes (MTRs) perpendicular to the route.

      MTRs are published in the AP/1B. It’s a DoD FLIP, I have hard copies at my squadron but I don’t think civilian users have access. But if you mention this publication you may find some help when calling flight briefers.

      Yes, military aircraft exceed 250 KIAS on MTRs; that’s the whole purpose of an MTR!
      It is also the reason that the FAA will not fault a military aircraft for exceeding that speed if collisions occur. The MTR is a corridor in which speed above 250 KIAS is authorized, for the purpose of Military Training. Again, the speed limit does not apply here to military aircraft when operating in the confines of the route.

      The purpose of going fast and low is to increase task loading on a military pilot, as well as to practice low-level, high-speed ingress. When on an MTR, we squawk 4000 (not 1200 or any IFR code, but 4000). This code lets ATC know that we are high-speed, low-level, and possibly unable to speak with controllers due to line-of-sight issues. Sometimes we’re at 500 feet in a valley, but again, this is the entire point of an MTR – to fly low, fast, sometimes in formation, in order to train to a high stress level.

      I fly in an EA-6B Prowler. We have no air to air radar. We do 450 KIAS. We recognize that VFR traffic may cross, and we look out for you, but see-and-avoid is not perfect. You might have us on TCAS; you might not. NEVER use just one tool to ensure you live to see tomorrow. If you cross an MTR, do it quickly, and cross perpendicular to the route so you minimize your time inside the route structure.

  8. Arthur

    John and Martha,
    I would have handled this differently. Any time a controller asks me to identify myself and call him I reply “My name is John King how can I help you?”

  9. Tom

    You should start talking on CTAF on a second radio whilst using the primary comm. for ATC. Additionally we wouldn’t cancel IFR unless we were on a visual approach. What if you had an emergency after cancelling ? To whom would you be speaking and how would he find you on radar?

    • Jordan

      This assumes a second radio – a lot of us are single-comms, which is absolutely legal and reasonable (certainly moreso than NORDO in a well-traffic’d airspace) but puts us in the same dilemma as John and Martha when ATC just doesn’t want to “let go” for some reason. I’ve had the same happen.

  10. John Doe

    “Flying low over unpopulated areas and surveying the ground below in silence is one of the great sinful joys of general aviation flying.” …. and you can still do that over the vast majority of our country.

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