Well it's official. On February 4, 2008 the Department of Defense will have added yet another chunk of the National Airspace System for military training over the Lemoore Naval Air Station in California's San Jouquin Valley. Apparently there have been a lot of meetings, starting back in October of 2003. I say apparently, because I only got wind of the proposed Military Operations Area (MOA) about a year ago. It appears AOPA and several local pilots, FBOs, and other operators were consulted about the design of the airspace.
When I first started training to be a private pilot, I remember how startled I was at the sheer volume of airspace set aside for military operations is the U.S. I wish I had a percentage figure, but I don't. A quick search of the internet did reveal that in 1987 and 1988 the General Accounting Office criticized the DoD and the FAA for inefficient use of existing special use airspace and for the lack of utilization data. In 1989 the DoD and the FAA committed to creating a special use airspace scheduling system, but it wasn't until 1995 under the Clinton Administration that a task force appears to have been formed to further the cooperation of military and civilian airspace users to reduce airline delays. The airlines are complaining mightily these days that the skies are too crowded, so this sort of cooperation sure seems like a good idea. It's just not clear that it's happening.
The DoD says the new MOA is needed because the F18 squadrons based at Lemoore and the F16 National Guard aircraft based at Fresno often find the restricted areas over China Lakes and Edwards Air Force Base are too crowded to use for their training. This forces them to fly long distances and burn lots of fuel just to do training. The claim is that most of the training in the new MOA will be high altitude operations at 15,000 feet and above. No ordinance will be carried and no "aggressive maneuvers" will be allowed, according to the Lemoore website.
This makes one wonder why the area was not designated an Alert Area instead of an MOA: The main difference between the two being that in an MOA, military aircraft are exempt from the 250 knot speed limit below 10,000 feet while in an Alert Area they are not. Aircraft in an MOA are also exempt from the restriction on aerobatic flight in Class E or D surfaces areas or on an airway.
It's hard to tell from the graphics provided on the Lemoore website what the floor of each section of the MOA will be. Only sector C is explicitly mention as having a floor at 16,000 feet MSL. The other sectors may start as low as 5000 feet MSL, but that's just a guess. We won't have long to wait though, because the new MOA will be depicted on the next San Francisco sectional due out at the end of August, even though the MOA is not supposed to go active until February 2008.
Sector C of the new MOA was design as a corridor between Visallia/Fresno and the rest of the valley to the northwest and the reason the floor of the MOA is so high there is pretty easy to guess - there's a heck of a lot of freight and passenger operations that need to get back and forth in that area.
When the weather is bad in the valley the new MOA could limit a pilot's options. Winter time sees the valley regularly socked in for weeks at a time with thick Tule Fog and freight dogs will often go to some pretty small airports if the weather allows them to land. Most of these alternate airports are probably outside the boundaries of the new MOA, but the most efficient routes to those airports are not. Air Mass thunderstorms are not unheard of during the summer and they can require a lot of maneuvering to avoid. Remember that restricted and special use airspace exists primarily to separate military aircraft from IFR traffic?
One hopes that the new MOA will have minimal impact on VFR traffic transitioning through the valley along the I-5 corridor, but it could prevent IFR aircraft from getting a direct-to routing. I used to regularly transition through the affected area when I flew freight, but ATC never gave us a direct routing to our destination until it was obvious a direct route would be clear of Lemoore's Class Delta airspace by several miles.
Now every pilot should know that you can fly through an active MOA anytime you want. You're not even required to talk to anyone on the radio, but not talking to Lemoore approach when the area is hot would just be stupid. I still fly regularly through this area with commercial pilot candidates on long cross-countries, with one stop usually being at Harris Ranch for pit stop and a bite to eat. The Lemoore website says the MOA should only be active Monday through Friday from 8am to 10pm (6pm on Fridays). It may be active one weekend a month for National Guard training.
Since this new area will be an MOA, not an Alert Area, I won't be surprised if the floor of some of the MOA's sectors turn out to be below 10,000 feet. And I suspect there's a good chance that some fast moving aircraft will soon be flying over that area as low as 5,000 feet MSL.
Time will tell ...