Military flybys: rules and mistakes

I have been flying small, complex planes like Mooneys for almost 40 years. For over 30 years, I have lived on a low-level military flight route. Twice a month, an F-4 would buzz our lake. Now it is KC-130 tankers high in the sky or a few Chinooks thundering across our lake. They can’t sneak up on you like an F-4. I have had five military flybys in the air as pilot in command. Every flyby makes my day better; some even make a life time memory. Here are a few.

My first in-air military flyby was over 25 years ago on a flight to Centennial at Aurora, Colorado. I flew there once a month for a number of years. This time, I picked the wrong body of water as a landmark, so I was too far north. ATC called to ask me to look at my right wing and tell them what I saw.

Which was: Buckley Air Force Base and an F-16 sitting on the runway, burning jet fuel, waiting for me to clear his airspace.

F-16 in flight
Not the view out the window you want to see.

ATC told me to hold this heading, maintain this altitude and monitor this frequency as the F-16 had a message for me. The F-16 took off and flew a complete 360 around me about a mile out. ATC called me and asked. “Did you get that message?” I responded that I heard every word.

A few years later, we were flying to Oklahoma City from Grand Island, Nebraska, and flying by an active MOA over Kansas. ATC (Center) informed us if we stayed on the left side of the highway, we would be safe. We wanted to save time so we hugged the road but stayed on the left side. ATC informed us there were drones and live fire inside this MOA.

About that time, a T-38 went straight up past our nose on the right side of the road about, a mile ahead of us. ATC asked, “Did you get that message they just sent you?” I responded, “I heard every word, loud and clear.” We were flying about 7,500 VFR that day, and the T38 went straight up, out of sight in no time.

A few years later, again over Kansas, we were flying, about 3000 feet AGL. ATC called and said, “Hold [this heading], maintain [this altitude], [speed] and monitor [this frequency]. Traffic is about to overtake you.” We were VFR, didn’t see any traffic but we were looking. I had a retired Air Force vet as my copilot.

ATC called, “Traffic one mile and closing, 6 o’clock, 1000 feet below you.” I responded, “Negative contact.” Of course, we were looking back and up for a faster plane. We watched as the mighty B-52 flew directly under us. I could have landed on the wing of this majestic bomber. My copilot served on a B-52 SAC base for four years and loaded live bombs on B-52s. He did much more than that, but I can’t tell you what here. That made our day and was the best flyby until two years ago.

This same copilot and I wanted to visit my son and fly over the “Boneyard” at Tucson, Arizona. We needed permission to fly over the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base to see well over 2,000 military planes of every type in row after row, very impressive to see in person.

I hadn’t flown PIC in six years, but now had the time and means to fly again. I was a little rusty. This was only my second long cross-country flight in my new-to-me 1967 M20F Mooney, and I was still getting used to that bird. It was also my first PIC flight over the mountains. The views from 12,000 MSL yet only 200 AGL were otherworldly.

It was the week before the Super Bowl 2017, and we had been on the Tucson Air Force Base and heard they were going to use the Blackhawks and A-10s that year to protect the event. Their concern was small, slow aircraft like mine – hard to tell the difference from a sightseer or a bogy.

I have immense respect for our military, knowing they take their jobs very seriously. They follow their orders. At the age of 19, I felt rules were meant to be broken. Learning to fly transformed my thinking about rules. Now rules are there to protect us and even save our lives.

We had a week of perfect VFR weather; this day may have been the best for sightseeing. During this flight, I made a few simple mistakes when entering military airspace: turning at the wrong time and my transponder was not on at first. I had the full attention of the military tower and had already put up enough red flags to force him to take action. First impressions are important and I just blew that.

He politely told me we needed to do a 180 to the left and leave his airspace. I complied, then noticed my transponder was on standby and I switched it to “on.” He then called me back to see if we wanted to return – very nice of him. The military tower told me that I must follow each instruction to the letter from now on or leave his airspace for good – his version of three strikes and you’re out. You don’t say “I’m sorry” to a military officer. They need to hear, “I understand completely” or simply, “Yes, sir.” They also don’t need or want to hear your side of the story; they have their orders.

Davis-Monthan
Davis-Monthan Air Force Base is a huge facility.

The military tower vectored me to the northwest end of the air base and said, “Fly parallel to runway 12. Do not cross over the runway.” (It is a mammoth runway, over 13,000 feet long.) “Proceed to the very end and expect further instruction.”

You may think, as my copilot did, that it just happened that there were two A-10 Warthogs just sitting side by side as we came up on the runway. We turned to fly parallel to the A-10s’ flight path as they started their staggered takeoff roll, beating us to the runway’s end.

Now my copilot said, “Get a load of this.” I said, “They want us to see this; one more mistake and these A-10s escort us out of their airspace.” At the runway’s end, the A-10s doubled back over top of the taxiway in a maneuver that even Maverick could not have performed in Top Gun. I had no idea such ugly planes could do such a graceful, synchronized maneuver on the deck like that. These fighter pilots make a crop duster look like a student pilot. My copilot now sounded like Goose: “They’re coming around behind us.” I got the message loud and clear.

By now, I was sure they knew my name, my password and were reading my emails. I just needed to keep cool, follow the rules and let these guys train like we were flying near the Super Bowl. I’m sure their commanding officer said this woud be good practice.

Don’t kid yourself – they are protecting their home base. We were in their airspace, and they make the rules here. I didn’t even bring a knife to this gun fight, so I was totally OK with that. Now the A-10s were behind us and the military tower vectored us left over the boneyard and then the graveyard. For some reason, these words took on a new, even surreal, meaning.

The military tower now asked us to come back and fly over it all again, said we did such a fine job, “willing” to let us have a second pass. They must have liked my emails. I was guessing he wanted us to turn around and see the A-10s. We decided to fly on to El Paso, and check on Trump’s wall construction, if any.

The military tower now asked, “Are you sure you don’t want to come back again?” telling us what a fine job we did. He was either very kind or playing with us. In my teenage days, this would have been a challenge to me, might have even pushed it too far, spent the night in chains, after enjoying a free cavity search, but today I was not at all happy with the simple mistakes I just made in military airspace.

I also felt a little out-gunned and I needed to work on my checklist to get my confidence back. So we still refused. His last call was, “Would you like flight following to El Paso?” I was not sure if that was his version of an A-10 escort. I informed the military tower that we requested to resume our own navigation as we were just sightseeing.

ForeFlight on my iPad showed a plane or drone flying 1000 feet below us for the next 100 miles. This does happen – most of the time ForeFlight is tracking a ghost of your own plane. This was the first time and last time I have noticed this, and it had me thinking after what we just went through.

The mountain ahead of us had the perfect “U” to fly through. We cleared the base of the “U” by 200 feet, with the top of the “U” 100 feet or more over our heads with maybe 200 feet on each side. The only plane going thru that “U” was us. We lost whatever was under us at the “U” and I have never seen a ghost plane again. We were able to pull a tail number off ForeFlight and it was an active tail number from Oregon. There was no crash below us so it was a ghost reading of some kind. Strange timing.

We enjoyed time with my son in Tucson. The city has the best Air Force museum and I have been to a number of them. There are more airplanes than you can count and by far the best SR-71 and D-21 drone on display with retired Air Force personnel there eager to answer any questions you may have. Everyone including the military tower went out of their way to make us feel welcome. Just follow their rules and enjoy the view.

I have never served in the military, but I have been on many military bases. Two years ago, I drove onto Fort Riley Army Base in Kansas. My truck tags say CAPTAIN because my marina is called Captain’s Quarters. At the guard house gate, I was asked if I were a retired captain by the youngest-looking private I have ever seen. He looked 15 to me. I replied, “No, son. You outrank me in every way.” Quickly he responded, “That is impossible, sir. I work for all Americans to keep America safe.” We should all be very proud of our military. I am.

20 Comments

  • Glad all the interactions worked out safely and with no follow up paperwork.

    Please respect the danger of flying into/around active military airspace. Military aircrew are busy doing something other than looking for a GA intruder when you wander in. They (and there may be multiple aircraft in multiple places/alts/hdg) are operating at up to 0.99M even in their traffic pattern and are moving vertically faster than your VNE, focused on a demanding tactical task for learning/recurrency. Even though MOAs and VR/IR routes are not exclusive use, crossing through them when military aircraft are present is like running up to and stepping into a crosswalk on a busy road, you may be right to be there, but you also may end up on someone’s windshield. Not following ATC directions in this case is like going against the crosswalk light on that busy street.

    …and having sat in both types of cockpits, I can assure you mistakes are made in both, so try your best not to add to the problem.

  • Since I learned to fly in busy military airspace, at the Elmendorf AFB Aeroclub in late 72, early 73, while I was still on active duty, I echo that it’s unwise to get near to having close encounters with military aircraft. They’re often piloted by young people with not a whole lot of experience, whose bravado can easily outstrip their judgment and skills. You simply do not want to get in their way.

    Incidentally, it’s rare for an officer or even a senior non-com to man a military tower. Most of the time, they’re also young people of lower rank, who are likewise a bit green.

    As the sarge in Hillstreet Blues used to say, “be careful out there!”

    • I have been on many military bases, I have noticed you can tell the tention in the world by the rank and number of the people with guns you come in contact at the gates as you enter the base. You may find young and lower rank guys but the senior officers are not far away, nor is help if needed. I do know things can go wrong, but even the young guys flying are not just turned loose and told to go play. They have a plan and action to take and are expected to follow it, if you see two planes flying in formation, they know each others moves before they make it.
      After 911, I was shown the video of the USA and each “green” plane being grounded as they all landed at large hubs, like Denver, Chicago…if you get the chance to see that video watch the “Blue” planes that come up as the “green” ones land, that will open your eyes as to how well and how fast the Air Force took action and controll of the skies, it wasn’t perfect but they had no idea what they were even looking for yet, but they went up to get in the fight if needed. They don’t put your butt in the cockpit of any Air Force plane untill you are fully trained, I trust them all, and I have the most respect for any Military pilot.
      As for the towers, as pilots you get to meet with ATC at safety meetings, if you have a friend that flys he can take you to a safety meeting, I have made many mistakes flying and so have the ATC, you need to work together both doing your part and pay attention to anything that looks or feels different. The best advice I was ever given as a pilot was it is not the first thing that goes wrong that kills you, most of the time, it is what happens next that you don’t see coming, that advice has saved my life on the ground driving my car many times.Try to be ready for what will happen next, be ahead of the plane, or ahead of the Tower, those guys can have a lot going on that you don’t know about, try not to add to their problems.
      In Denver I listened to a female ATC unload on a Pilot she was very upset with him, he replied “was I married to you once” it did NOT end well for him, and she went on to the next Pilot like she just clocked in. She was in total control I was impressed, as I was thinking I would hate to be the next pilot after that rant.

    • Cary, Everyone of those military pilots you refer to as not having a whole lot of experience, judgement or skills went through a training program that would have cost you in the millions at today’s inflated rates. And while their bravado may have seemed to outweigh their judgement to some, I can assure you that most of us who were flying at Elmendorf at the time you were learning to fly were not newbies. Uncle Sam does not tolerate a cavalier attitude among those that are entrusted to protect and serve. Any one you knew or who were flying military aircraft at the time you and I were stationed in Alaska had a a minimum 260 hours of intensive jet training plus additional flight training in the aircraft they were currently operating. Most of us also had combat flight experience. However, you are correct in stating you didn’t want to get in their way, as they had a job to do, and would do it.

      • Bob, I meant no insult, just reality.

        To me, 260 hours is lots of training but not lots of experience, nor any indicator of judgment, especially when most of the USAF aviators I knew were younger than I was (I was 26-29). I had many contacts with them and their superiors in my duties as Chief, Military Justice, at base level before moving down the road to AAC. At my age, I thought I was pretty mature, and I’m sure most of those folks thought they were mature, also (except maybe those guys who dumped a couple of fighters into the Knik Arm one night, in a self-imposed contest to see who could fly slower).

        But today, from the luxury of 3/4 century of life, almost 49 years of law practice before retiring 4 1/2 years ago, and 11 or 12 times the flight hours of those folks, I know that none of us were as grown up or as skilled at our jobs as we thought we were, nor did we possess the judgment which maturity and experience bring.

        So my comment is still valid: be careful out there!

        • Cary
          I’m 63 I stopped being bullet proof about 10 years ago. Only because my body can’t take the abuse that these young pilots can. I too have far more experience now than then. But youth does have it’s advantage and you have to give that to them.You just can’t paint even 1% of the entire military pilots with a lack of judgment brush. I stand by my comment too I respect them all, we all have bad days, we all make mistakes. I always felt I learned far more from the things I did wrong than the ones I did right. Your comment about being careful out there is valid and very good advice, even for walking the dog not just flying.

  • In the Kansas incident, you were probably in Restricted Area, not a MOA, if there was live fire being conducted.

    • You could be right, now it is called the “Cougar High and Low MOA” this was back in 1980’s with the T38 and the early 1990’s with the B52. We were just told it was “active” and then went “Hot” with live fire. Back then I thought they were just saying that to keep us out of their way. But the T38 got my attention. My Copilot both times, loaded “Nukes” onto B52’s at the Sister SAC base in Barksdale LA his stories are far better then mine. Wish I could repeat them, very interesting, those guys know what they are doing working with real Nukes during a base lock down. If you know what you are looking for you can see the building the Nukes are in on Google Earth…that is all I’m going to say. I can say our goverment has a plan for things most of us haven’t even thought about yet.
      I also stated at the first that the KC130’s fly over our lake now I’m sure they are the KC135 jet engine now.
      I called DC before the trip to Tucson in 2017 if you want to check out the “round” restricted areas each one is marked with a # the one we flew by was R-5115 they will not tell you anything and yet it is marked on the chart as a balloon with a 15,000 cable attched. Looks like a small blimp only clear. You really want to keep a look out in that area. I don’t think anything or anyone is comming across that border we don’t know about already. We have assets in place and ready if needed, I’m sure of that too.

    • Dick
      You may find this interesting, Before my flight to Tucson in 2017 I called DC to check on every MOA and Restricted area we were going to flyby. The guy in DC was very helpful, there was one very small area he wanted to be sure I was aware of as we were going to fly right next to it. He told me he would send me a email that would explain how important it was to stay out of this area. The email he sent showed every flight path that went thru that airspace over a 30 day period, it showed where the plane took off from and where it landed. I called him back he asked if I understood his email, he added if you fly thru this airspace there is a very good chance we will be there when you land, where ever you land. I let them know my plans, the reason for my flight, to fly over the bone yard. I’m sure that is the reason I was given the second chance to come back and fly over the base. They knew I was coming, they knew what I wanted to see, I had landed at Ryan’s field near by a few days before we flew over the base, the tower at Ryan’s field even knew our intentions and told us what to expect, what altitude to enter the air space and a few of the rules we needed to know. At no time did they make us feel unwelcome, like I said they went out of there way to be helpful. I understand the tensions going on now days I gave them every chance to do a back ground check on me before I got there. I wanted this to be a good fun memory and it was.

  • In June 2009, returning from Canada, my son and I cleared customs in Great Falls, Montana on our way to Cincinnati, Ohio. To depart, we taxied back to the active where the tower told us to hold short of the runway. For the next ten minutes, my son and I watched 5 or 6 F something fighter jets do touch and goes, low level rolls and wing overs, and vertical departures. We could not have been closer if we had wanted to be. When it was over, the tower apologized, quite unnecessarily, for the delay. It was wonderful.

  • I was Born on July 4, 1934, living on Staten Island, when at the age of 9, I knew I wanted to be involved in Aviation. My parents helped me purchase a Thor model airplane motor…. really wasn’t much good…. would not run very well even on the motor stand I constructed…. built u-control model ‘highspeed’ model airplanes… Graduated Curtis High School in February 1952…went to RPI to become an Aeronautical Engineer and in Air Force ROTC… Graduated… was in the Air Force pilot training class of 57-H…. First flight in a ‘souped up’ Piper Cub was on February 2, 1956…. Became a pilot after almost being ‘washed out’… flew B-47’s with an Aircraft Commander who flew B-17’s in WWII…. flew F-86H’s and F-84’s in the Mass. Air National Guard…worked at Pratt & Whitney, division of United Technologies, Inc. for about 40 years….. Now retired mentoring and ‘teaching’ aviation related subjects with elementary, junior, and senior high school students, and previously adults in Dartmouth’s ILEAD program….Received the EAA Leadership Award in 2006, and in 2010 The Wright Brothers “Master Pilot” Award from FAA “In recognition of your contributions to building and maintaining the safest aviation system in the world, through practicing and promoting safe flight operations for 50 consecutive years”… Organized Airport Awareness Day and Young Eagle Rally at Lebanon Airport for 4 years and Dean Memorial Airport for 14 years… continued flying in our 1976 Cessna 182 to travel, and fly youngsters to become a Young Eagle, an EAA program chaired by Sully & Jeff, pilots of the now-famous US Airways Flight 1549 ditching in the Hudson River… My last flight in our 1976 Cessna 182 (N1408M) was in October 2011 and sold in 2012… VERY sad; but I had 55 years, 1,996 hours flying time with 1,762 take-offs and landings… much fun, challenges, excitement, and pilot-in-command time… In 2014 I became a ‘Ground Pounder’, member of EAA Chapter 26 Seattle, WA co-chairing monthly newsletter, “WIND IN THE RIGGING, belike”, and doing mentoring/seminars on many Aviation related topics with youngsters & ‘elderly’. Being in Aviation, EAA Young Eagles program (flown just under 400 youngsters), and mentoring youngsters has been, and is, a VERY rewarding experience. With that, I would like VERY much to have a ~ 5 minute telephone conversation with David Yonker to exchange ‘War Stories’, etc. Please help me do that!

    • Joel I fought in no wars, I was married twice, not sure that counts. Sounds like I need to listen to your war stories. There are many old saying about flying, one is that is much better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than in the air wishing you were on the ground. Never once have I ever wished I was on the ground in all my years of flying, and you have far more PIC time that I will every have. It would be an honor to talk to you. Not sure I can post my phone number her but my e-mail is Captain500@aol.com, if you can get me your number and a time to call I would enjoy talking with you. My father was born in 1933.

  • You were afforded a very prestigious allowance to operate in Military airspace, I am happy to know that you were not met with brute force or terror ! Yes, fully concur with the previous comment that mistakes are made on both sides, we are human beings operating in a complex set of rules and airspace , human beings are not perfect beings. Checklists, protocol , experience and wisdom go a long way on any flight ……………

    • Very well put Mark, many of us get a number of second chances, I have had more than I can count. Very hard to hear about those young people that never get even one second chance. That is so unfair. I do feel the rules FAA has in place do the best we can hope for to keep the skies safe. Not all pilots follow them and mistakes are made everyday, as a small GA Pilot I like a copilot with me, a second set of eyes at any airport can give you that second chance.

      • Enjoyed the story and the comments. My experience flying over military installations is limited, but was always positive– communicate, communicate, communicate.

        Let’s be grateful: what other nation will let private pilots fly over, or even near air force or other military bases? We have some unusual privileges in America that we often don’t value as much as we should.

        • WOW Very well put, you can’t sneak up on them, they know you are coming so you may as well be up fount and let them know your intentions. Thanks for your comment HH.

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