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National Parks and 'Good-neighbor' Airspace

Flying to one of America's National Parks and seeing the landscape that makes that area special is one of the greatest thing you can do with your pilot's certificate -- if you know what you're doing.

Flying to one of America's National Parks and seeing the landscape that makes that area special is one of the greatest thing you can do with your pilot's certificate -- if you know what you're doing. The Parks are one of America's great treasures and if you go you should know the airspace restrictions involved so that aircraft and Parks can remain good neighbors. When you plan your trip there are some thing that are important to keep in mind...

There are three United States Government agencies that have jurisdiction over parks and wildlife areas:

  1. The National Parks Service,
  2. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and
  3. The United States Forestry Service.

Operations of almost any kind are prohibited in these areas without prior authorization.

NO LANDING
First, all pilots are prohibited from landing an aircraft -- either on land or water -- inside any areas designated by any of these three agencies without prior authorization ... Except:

  • when an aircraft is forced to land due to an emergency beyond the control of the pilot;
  • at officially designated landing sites; or
  • on approved official business of the Federal Government.

NO DROPPING
Federal regulations also prohibit airdrops or parachuting into National Parks, National Wildlife Areas, and National Forests and Seashores. Again, there could be exceptions to this rule if emergencies take place involving the safety of human life, or the threat of serious property loss.

NO LOW FLYING
Unless the area is further restricted, you may over-fly a National Park, or wildlife area, but watch your altitude. Pilots are requested to maintain a minimum altitude of 2,000 feet above the surface of any area designated as a National Park, Monument, Seashore, Lakeshore, Recreation Area and Scenic Riverways administered by the National Park Service. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also requests that pilots stay 2,000 feet over areas designated as National Wildlife Refuses, Big Game Refuges, Game Ranges and Wildlife Ranges, or National Marine Sanctuary. And Finally the U.S. Forestry Service asks pilots to maintain 2,000-foot separation from the surface of Wilderness and Primitive Areas. Remember, that's 2,000 feet AGL.

Important: Often these areas are not flat terrain. In fact, it is probably the canyons, and mountains that make them so special. So, FAA Advisory Circular (AC) 91-36C, titled, 'VFR Flight Near Noise-Sensitive Areas' further defines the 2,000-foot-AGL rule. The AC defines the surface as the highest terrain within 2,000 feet laterally of the route of flight, or the upper-most rim of a canyon or valley.

SYMBOLOBY
Look at Figure 1 of the Lake Andes National Wildlife Refuge in South Dakota.

Figure 1

The area is designated on the chart with a continuous blue line. Inside the line are blue dots. This chart symbol does not appear on the Sectional Chart Legend. Pilots are requested to stay 2,000 feet above the area inside that blue line with enclosed dots. The near-by Lake Andes airport has an airport elevation of 1,475 feet MSL, so pilots in this area should cross the refuge no lower than approximately 3,475 feet MSL (1,475 + 2,000).

Figure 2 (below) shows the Cedar Breaks National Monument and the Ash Down Gorge Wilderness Area in Utah.

Figure 1

The exact crossing altitude of these two areas would be harder to calculate since ground elevation changes rapidly in the gorge. Use 'better-safe-than-sorry' judgement here.

Figure 3 (click here to view) is if the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary which is just of the coast of San Francisco.

Over the ocean AGL and MSL can be considered the same thing, so pilot are asked to fly no closer to the water than 2,000 feet in this area.

REQUEST VERSUS LEGAL REQUIREMENT
You might have noticed that altitude separations over parks and wildlife areas are all 'requests'. The Advisory Circular previously cited -- like all other AC's -- is not a regulation, but falls into the category of good operating practices. The regulations pertaining to legal altitudes above the surface still all apply, but an extra buffer is requested over sensitive areas.

BOTTOM LINE: All pilots should follow these recommendations -- regardless of whether or not they are regulatory. (These days, even legal flight over a reservoir could provoke jittery neighbors to summon a visit from a pair of F-16s.) So, enjoy the parks this summer, bur remember the heightened concerns and patriotic vigilance of those on the ground ... and match them with a higher altitude!

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About This Author:
Paul A. Craig is a Gold Seal Multiengine and Instrument Flight Instructor. He currently holds a total of 11 Flight Certificates including his ATP. Craig is a previous winner of the North Carolina and Tennessee Flight Instructor of the Year award, the NCVT Outstanding Teacher award and has served as the regional representative of the National Air and Space Museum. Craig is an FAA Aviation Safety Counselor and the author of eight books, including Pilot In Command, The Killing Zone: How and Why Pilots Die, and Controlling Pilot Error: Situational Awareness (all from McGraw Hill).
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