Insider Series: How Civilian ATC and the Military Work Together

Nov 5, 2015

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TPG Contributor “Vic Vector” is an air traffic controller at a major ATC facility in the United States. In this installment of our “Insider Series,” he explores how the US military, commercial airlines and privately-operated aircraft share our National Airspace System (NAS).  

If you’ve been reading my other TPG posts, you’re by now aware that civilian air traffic controllers provide an important service to commercial airlines and private aircraft, but few outside the aviation industry may be aware that the military also plays a significant part in America’s ATC system.

FAA Order 7110.65 is the official name of the manual that prescribes guidance for all air traffic control procedures in the United States, but it’s colloquially known as the “Bible of ATC” — and despite the fact that it’s hundred of pages in length, all of America’s air traffic controllers are intimately familiar with it. One of its first paragraphs defines the three-pronged purpose of the ATC system: “…to prevent a collision between aircraft operating in the system and to provide a safe, orderly, and expeditious flow of traffic, and to provide support for National Security and Homeland Defense.”

A military air traffic controller conducting traffic on a US Navy aircraft carrier. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

In general, the United States military employs its own air traffic controllers, most of whom work at domestic, stand-alone military installations, as well as more forward-deployed venues such as those found on US Navy aircraft carriers. Most of these military-staffed airports are rarely transited by civilian aircraft, and are instead designed to let the military run their own show with their own aircraft.

There are, however, a handful of airports around the country that provide joint military-civilian use, such as Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina, Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, and Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in Arizona. These airports house significant amounts of military traffic, but also allow civilian aviation activity, both commercial and private. At these types of airports, the controllers in the tower or TRACON are typically civilians — either FAA controllers or Department of Defense-contract controllers, the latter of which are often former military themselves.

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US Air Force C-17s flying over the Ravenel Bridge, near the Charleston Air Force Base, which provides joint military-civilian use. Photo courtesy of Joint Base Charleston.

As I’ve discussed before, most of the airspace in the country is owned by Air Route Traffic Control Centers, which are staffed exclusively by FAA-employed civilian controllers. These controllers handle all air traffic between airports, including military aircraft transiting the national airspace system, which means that civilian and military facilities all around the country must interact with each other on a daily basis. As a result, both civilian and military air traffic controllers use a commonly shared phraseology, are generally on the same page when it comes to air traffic procedures, and use the same built-in phone lines to communicate via headsets with other ATC facilities.

Restricted airspace associated with Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California. Image courtesy of, the website for the US Air Force.

However, in stark contrast to civilian aviation’s focus on point-to-point transport flights, a large part of the US military’s aviation activities are training sessions conducted in areas called Special Use Airspace (SUA), which exist throughout the country in several forms and contain various degrees of hazardous activity. While certainly not an exhaustive list, the major types of SUA employed by the military are:

Restricted Areas (RAs), which usually contain artillery or aerial gunnery, and when active, are off-limits to all aircraft of all kinds.

Alert Areas are used for extensive flight training, both military and civilian.

Military Training Routes (MTRs) are used for high-speed flight training.

Military Operation Areas (MOAs) are blocks of altitudes that the military routinely reserves in order to safely conduct training sessions in high-speed rapid maneuvering by military aircraft, such as air-to-air dogfighting. Controllers will keep commercial airliners away from MOAs, but small aircraft operating under visual conditions are free to traverse them — even when the MOAs are active.

Warning Areas are much like Restricted Areas or MOAs, only they exist over oceans. When in use by the military, civilian traffic is prevented from going up or down the coast and/or from straying too far off shore.

Controlled Firing Areas are used for controlled firing training, and are a mystery to most pilots and controllers, as their locations aren’t published on any aeronautical charts. When being used by the military, these areas employ radar and spotters to ensure that training operations are suspended in the event that an unknowing aircraft wanders into the firing path.

Military Special Use Airspace exists all around us. Image courtesy of

While it may give you pause to know that American airspace sometimes hosts high-speed training maneuvers by sophisticated military aircraft, the US military’s Special Use Airspace has been deliberately designed to stay separate from areas of busy commercial traffic — so in general, it’s of little concern to the average traveler or the majority of civilian airline pilots. Occasionally, military SUAs will unexpectedly go active, and civilian ATCs will swiftly instruct commercial and private flights to make last-minute re-routes; most of the time, though, what military and civilian ATCs do in tandem exists quietly amidst the daily rush of civilian air traffic.

On a daily basis, civilian and military air traffic controllers work closely with each other — as well as with their individual sectors’ pilots and crew members — to ensure that everyone in our national airspace stays safe and accomplishes their missions, whatever they may be.

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