Danger Areas

Very few, if any, GA pilots wear parachutes, yet a parachute is exactly what you’d need if the structural integrity of your aircraft was compromised in the air. How could that happen? It could happen by overstressing the aircraft or, more likely, it could happen by hitting or being hit by something solid; either way, it would change your aircraft from being a flying machine to a piece of heavy metal. From very early on in our flying training, we are taught the importance of lookout and the application of the rules of the air to minimise the risk of collision; nevertheless, collisions continue to happen in class G airspace.

There are other types of airspace where the risk of collision is substantially higher and the thing which could hit you cannot see, sense or avoid you. The airspace in question is a danger area (DA). There has been an increase in the number of DA infringements at various locations around the UK over the last two to three years. DA infringements put the safety of the infringing aircraft at risk as well as that of any aircraft operating within the DA as part of a trial or live-firing activity.

On CAA charts, Danger Areas (D), Prohibited Areas (P) and Restricted Areas (R) are all indicated by bold red cross-hatched boundary lines with their identification number and associated effective altitudes (or Flight Level). The legal status of these three types of segregated airspace is different and even amongst DAs, there are legal differences; for instance, some are associated with bye-laws and others are not. However, the purpose of this article is not to discuss the legalities of entering a DA, rather it’s to discuss the wisdom and safety (or lack of it) in doing so. DAs activated by NOTAM are shown with a broken boundary line. DAs are prefixed by the letter ‘D’ and followed by a three-digit number ie. D026. Quite a lot of information on DAs is provided in the legend at the bottom of the chart; unfortunately, this is frequently folded out of sight!

The presence on the chart alludes little to what may be going on inside the DA. Whatever the activity, as the name implies, there is an element of danger associated with it! The activities taking place in DAs are many and varied. For instance, they may be used for the firing of artillery shells and other ground-launched ballistic or guided ordnance. Whilst the firing takes place from ground level, the shell trajectories can reach several thousand feet and the rounds can travel at supersonic speed. On other occasions, live bombing from aircraft takes place with both ‘dumb’ and guided bombs being released from various altitudes against fixed or moving targets on the ground or sea surface. Other activities include lasers operations, the dropping of anti-shipping/anti-submarine weapons, the firing of air-to-air missiles, demolition of surplus/time-expired ordnance and the operation of Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAV) or drones. The main point to make is that GA pilots are unlikely to know what activities are being conducted in any one DA.

A missile, be it air-launched or ground-launched, doesn’t need to hit its target to destroy it. Getting close enough to activate its proximity fuse will trigger detonation and send pieces of metal or shrapnel scything through the air at high speed. Even if it doesn’t detonate, the shock wave may well upset the flying characteristics of a light aircraft. Ball ammunition from a gun would need to hit to cause damage but a short burst from a modern weapon may send 20 to 30 bullets in short order. A single artillery shell would have a similar effect. Lasers can cause severe eye damage.

Safety at ranges is paramount and huge effort goes into protecting persons, vessels, vehicles or structures, be they participants or non-participants. The first line of defence in affording safety and protecting airspace users is to carry out hazardous activities within segregated airspace or danger areas; that means airspace which is effectively closed to all traffic except those participating in the activity.

The second line of defence is to notify airspace users of DA activation. The location, dimensions and altitudes of DAs are indicated on flying charts and in the AIP. Some DAs are permanently active: some are active within regular published operating hours and some are only activated by NOTAM; in this latter case, timings and dimensions are contained within the NOTAM.

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The third line of defence is to provide a buffer between the edge of the danger area and the hazardous activity. Within a DA, there will be weapons employment zones and firing arcs designed to contain the weapons and associated shrapnel within a predicted area. The potential flight profile of rogue missiles is taken in account.

The fourth line of defence is to provide some form of surveillance within the danger area to detect unauthorised intruders. On small ranges, the surveillance may be by visual means; on others, radar surveillance is used. In all cases, the intention is to detect and protect third parties by stopping the activity and achieving separation, if necessary, between participating and non-participating aircraft. The firing of artillery can be stopped relatively quickly but some activities, such as the burning of surplus ammunition, take much longer to de-activate. In extremis, the flight of a drone may be terminated to provide the required level of protection. Termination usually results in the loss of the drone and a cessation of that particular trial or activity.

It is worth mentioning at this stage that many DAs are able to provide a service to aviators – be that providing up-to-date information on activity or to provide an ATC service. The services available are a Danger Area Activation Information Service (DAAIS) and a Danger Area Crossing Service (DACS). The former provides up to date information on the timings and altitudes of a DA whilst the latter provides a service to cross through DA airspace subject, obviously, to there being no activity underway. Details of these services can be found on the legend at the bottom of the CAA half-mil chart and in the AIP.

As mentioned in the first paragraph, even when following all the rules, the risk of a collision in open airspace cannot be mitigated to zero. However, risks can be reduced to a level which is tolerable and which is as low as is reasonably practicable. It’s the same with DAs within which collisions of one form or another may actually be the intention; the mitigations put into place in danger areas are designed to afford protection to an aircraft which inadvertently penetrates the airspace, but are you willing to bet your life on it?

QinetiQ manages a number of ranges around the UK on behalf of the MOD, hence the company’s interest in reducing DA infringements. So far in 2012, there have been 22 reported infringements of just three of the QinetiQ-managed ranges and/or associated DAs (D201/2 in West Wales, D406 (Cumbrian coast) and D 138 (Essex coast)) – an increase of over 100% compared with the whole of the previous year. In all cases, the safety of the intruding aircraft was ensured by termination of the DA activity, sometimes at great cost to the trial sponsor.

All infringements of QinetiQ-managed DAs are reported using the MOD’s Air Safety Information Management System (ASIMS). In the case of infringements by civilian aircraft, the report is automatically sent to the CAA as a Mandatory Occurrence report (MOR) and investigated. The reasons given by offending pilots for their incursions vary from unfamiliarity with their aircraft navigation systems, cognitive failure, unsure of position, lack of knowledge of the presence of the danger area, distraction, poor flight planning and failure to adequately check NOTAMs. In 99% of cases, the infringements are inadvertent and the offending pilot is mortified and apologetic when contacted by the CAA or the relevant ATC authority. In a few cases, however, legal action may be taken.

The aim of this article is not to threaten chastisement, but to reduce the risk to life to as low as is reasonably practicable and to minimise disruption to activities taking place within DAs.

There are a number of things the GA pilot can do to reduce the risk of DA incursions:

PLANNING. Check NOTAMs; if in doubt, assume a DA is active. If you have to go near a DA, plan your route in such a way as to use unique navigational features to confirm your position (outside the DA). Don’t plan to fly along the edge (whilst you might have a good line feature to keep you on the safe side of it, the Range’s ATC controllers or visual look-outs don’t know your intentions and have no option but to anticipate an incursion). Fold your chart in such a way that your route and any diversion airfields are clearly visible. It goes without saying that your chart must be up to date. Remember that GPS units have been known to fail or shut down – usually at the most inconvenient moment. Finally, study your route before you fly it and think through potential problems such as weather re-routes or diversions to other airfields.

ATC. Use ATC. Even with a Basic Service you will almost certainly receive advice on controlled airspace and danger areas. Don’t be embarrassed to ask ATC for assistance if unsure of position. Ascertain if there is a Danger Area Activity Information Service (DAAIS) or a Danger Area Crossing Services (DACS). Details are on the CAA chart legend. Note down the frequency and call when approaching the danger area. In some cases, you may be cleared through. If nothing else, knowing your intentions will assist the Range or DA controller.

AIRMANSHIP. Be aware of distraction. Your job is to fly the aircraft. Learn to time-share and don’t let one thing monopolise your attention – aviate first, navigate, then communicate.