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This is a super hypothetical question of mine. I was wondering if civilian pilots who happened to be faced with a severe emergency could fly through or possibly request to land in restricted airspace? Mainly I am referring to Area 51?

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    $\begingroup$ Physically, short of shooting you down, they couldn't stop you landing anywhere. If you could get permission before hand is another matter. The interrogation after may not be pleasant either. $\endgroup$ – Notts90 Oct 17 '16 at 7:09
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    $\begingroup$ In an emergency, the captain can do whatever they deem to be appropriate, including flying or landing in restricted airspace following the basic rule of "aviate, navigate, communicate". It must be the only option available and the captain would need to be ready to explain why in the enquiry. $\endgroup$ – Simon Oct 17 '16 at 7:59
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    $\begingroup$ It has been reported, sort of. $\endgroup$ – David Schwartz Oct 17 '16 at 18:50
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FAR 91.3 states that any pilot in command may deviate from any regulation or rules to the extent needed to deal with the emergency. That includes entering restricted or prohibited airspace.

In the example that you suggested, yes you could do so and land at the Groom Lake flight test facility at KXTA, provided you could reach their controllers or contact Nellis Approach Control declaring an emergency. I will say that if you do enter R-4808 N and land there, don't expect them to roll out the welcome mat. You will be immediately met by USAF Military Police who will arrest you, most likely at gunpoint, and spend several hours, if not days, there or outside the compound being extensively questioned by Air Force Security personnel, the FBI and Homeland Security. Your aircraft will be impounded and inspected, possible indefinitely, and search warrants issued for your property. If they find out that you faked an emergency to enter that compound, you are in very serious trouble and face a variety of federal charges including trespass upon a classified installation and whatever else the DoJ can throw at you.

In addition, you would need a very, very good reason to even be anywhere near Area 51, as it is in the middle of a military reservation geographically the size of the nation of Switzerland in the middle of south central Nevada. There are no published routes over the airspace and all commercial and civilian traffic is kept far, far away. Details about the airfield are not published on government aeronautical charts or regional A/FDs. See the VFR sectionals and enroute charts below.

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While Area 51 is a pretty extreme example, people have had emergencies and landed in military or other restricted facilities. The usual response from the authorities is to detain and question you to determine what happened and inspect the aircraft to verify your story. If it's a legitimate emergency, no harm is done and they will release you and the aircraft; the NTSB will file and incident report and that's it.

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    $\begingroup$ If you have planned a flight where your best diversion point is Groom Lake then you would probably loose your ticket on that basis. $\endgroup$ – GdD Oct 17 '16 at 14:14
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    $\begingroup$ @GdD UA232 springs to mind. You might not plan it as a diversion but fate might make it necessary. It's not inconceivable that lateral navigation, or lack of it, permits no planned alternative. $\endgroup$ – Simon Oct 17 '16 at 17:34
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    $\begingroup$ I understand the point you are making @Simon, and I agree that circumstances can put one in a position never anticipated. I am saying that you shouldn't put yourself in a position where your only option in a more "routine" emergency would be such a sensitive area. $\endgroup$ – GdD Oct 17 '16 at 18:05
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    $\begingroup$ Presmably there's a principle here that the right (indeed, obligation) to deviate from aviation regulations and rules doesn't necessarily grant complete immunity from prosecution on all other grounds. Just means it won't be the FAA prosecuting. So if you can handle your emergency without committing any other offence then you're good to go. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Oct 18 '16 at 2:16
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    $\begingroup$ KTNX in the northwest corner of the Nellis range -- Tonopah Test Range, former home of the F-117's -- would be a better case of landing in the restricted area as a result of something gravely serious (in-flight fire would do it). It would even have the added detail of being a more suitable airport than, say KTPH (civillian Tonopah) just outside the restricted area -- at least for a reasonably large aircraft. $\endgroup$ – Ralph J Oct 18 '16 at 6:15
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Being an air traffic controller I know this situation is not as simple as that.

Given emergency category pilot can decide to use restricted area or land a military runway. But in the mean time pilot needs to inform ATCo's so they can coordinate with civil and military aviation authorities to keep flight from scramble jets, locked in air defense etc.

If pilot cannot communicate with ATCo (so he/she will need to squawk 7700) ATCo should guess what pilot is going to do and inform authorities.

Given situations above yes, an emergency plane can fly through restiricted areas etc. But if there is any other way out pilot shouldn't choose to use restricted area like Area 51. If it comes out he/she had other options but still used Area 51, that will be a big headache for the pilot. (and ATCo needs to advice pilot that there might be other ways..)

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    $\begingroup$ I watched an AOPA video about a pilot in IMC having trouble finding a place to land and was running out of gas. He asked the ATC at Dover AFB if he could land there but the ATC told him no, unless it was an emergency. Unfortunately he was reticent to declare so he continued on and fueled out in IMC. He didn't make it. $\endgroup$ – TomMcW Oct 18 '16 at 6:33
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    $\begingroup$ @TomMcW: I guess that would be Final Approach from Accident Case Studies - sobering stuff! $\endgroup$ – RedGrittyBrick Oct 18 '16 at 20:46
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    $\begingroup$ @RedGrittyBrick That's the one. I watch it and keep wishing this time he would declare an emergency. He'd face some hard questions, but he'd live to tell about it $\endgroup$ – TomMcW Oct 18 '16 at 21:18
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    $\begingroup$ I belive eclaring emergency is a harsh option for pilots. For example; because of heavy traffic around airport we had to delay some planes. After 30 min circling a pilot said he is running out of fuel and may declare emergency if we do not land him in 10 minutes. We asked if he is declaring emergency and he said he is not, but he will in 10 minutes. We said ok call back in 10 minutes. After 30 minutes he landed but never declared emergency. Was he running out of gas? If so why didn't decleared emergency fuel? If he wasn't running out of gas, why he tried to negotiage an earlier landing? $\endgroup$ – alkinkasap Oct 23 '16 at 7:26
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    $\begingroup$ @alkinkasap -- in the USA, there is no mandatory paperwork involved with declaring an emergency. $\endgroup$ – UnrecognizedFallingObject Dec 30 '17 at 16:42
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It's a principle handed down to aviation from the traditional laws of the sea: Any port in a storm.

In fact, if a pilot declares an emergency and asks for vectors to the nearest suitable landing environment, ATC might well direct him to an airfield that otherwise would be denied to him.

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First, Groom Lake is a lousy example, because it's located roughly smack in the middle of the always-busy Nellis Range Complex, which keeps nonparticipating aircraft far, far away. (The only emergency diverts it ever sees are Nellis Range participants who have to knock-it-off in a big hurry, I'm sure.)

OTOH, in a general sense of the question, the answer is "yes, if necessary for safety of flight, a civilian emergency can land at an airfield in restricted airspace." A good example of this would be if you were puttering along the Western portion of the Eglin FAR 93 E/W corridor and something terrible happened -- making an emergency landing at Hurlburt Field would definitely be preferable to an off-airport landing or ditching. Obviously, you'd be telling Eglin Approach about your predicament since you have an advisory service from them anyway, and the controller would simply tell the Eglin Range folks to broadcast a hold or knock-it-off to whoever's working in R-2915B until you're safely on the ground.

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Even as an Air Force fighter pilot you'll get sent home from red flag (and exercise held at in Vegas), if you accidentally bust the Area 51 airspace.

An old boss of mine made an emergency landing there in a B-1. He said they let him land, shutdown on the runway, and were driven blindfolded into a hanger where they were given food and told to wait until their plane was fixed.

If that's what they do to a group of four officers with TS clearances, I can't imagine it would go well for your average joe. If I were flying a cessna, I'd happily pick landing on a road over busting that airspace. There's plenty unused roads all over that part of the country.

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Yes they can if there's no other airport near the airliners reach. Lets say the plane has 2 engines fail on one wing that is counted as an emergency so they will need to land were ever it's safe to land.

The Hudson river landing is one of the best landings done by a pilot with 2 engine failure on both wings.

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    $\begingroup$ "done by a pilot"... by a crew? $\endgroup$ – mins Oct 17 '16 at 10:45
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    $\begingroup$ The Hudson river is not exactly a great example of a restricted airspace. $\endgroup$ – J. Hougaard Oct 17 '16 at 15:39
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    $\begingroup$ The Hudson river is not a great example of a runway, either. $\endgroup$ – Criggie Oct 18 '16 at 10:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Criggie - don't tell that to Sully! $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Oct 18 '16 at 12:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Criggie Sully would never call the Hudson River a runway. He's a pilot. $\endgroup$ – KorvinStarmast May 16 at 0:44

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