I was watching the ULA Atlas V IBIRS countdown tonight but the launch was scrubbed (after some technical issues) ultimately because of a range violation: an airplane was in the restricted area.

I've seen this happen because of boats before, but I know it also sometimes happens because of wayward planes. Specifically: Is this just a standard airspace violation? Or is it treated differently since this particular launch was military-related? Whose job is it to keep the airspace clear, how do pilots know to stay clear of the area, and what happens to the pilot(s), if anything?

(Here's a more detailed tweet thread that has some interesting discussion.)

  • $\begingroup$ I believe they said that there was an aircraft that would have been in the range at T-0 (based on a call I heard after the hold), not that it was actually there. I'm surprised ATC couldn't re-route or something, this caused the launch to scrub for 24 hours... $\endgroup$
    – Steve
    Jan 20, 2017 at 2:30
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Depending on the exact type of the rocket, the exact launch sequence, and the exact time the range violation was detected, moving the launch by 24 hours may have been the simplest / safest / cheapest option. After all, in the most extreme case, if you wait too long to see whether ATC can re-route the plane, and it turns out they can't, the only way to scrub the launch is to blow up the rocket! 24 hours is not a long time, and they are prepared for launch delays anyways, for minor technical problems, upper-altitude winds, rain, lightning, etc. If this was a launch that could only happen once a $\endgroup$ Jan 20, 2017 at 10:03
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ decade, they probably would have made a different decision. $\endgroup$ Jan 20, 2017 at 10:03

2 Answers 2


As far as the FAA is concerned, it's just an airspace violation. There is a restricted area over the center/base that extends up to 5000 feet. This is active continuously. There are other restricted areas that extend up to 'unlimited' that are "Intermittent by NOTAM normally 24 HRS in advance."

So high altitude traffic is not impacted by the continuous restriction and when there is a launch the restriction is published by NOTAM in advance. This gives ATC the ability to route traffic around the area without any significant impact. Since the safety area extends out into international airspace, the FAA can't control it as restricted airspace. They have been defined as FAR 91.143 airspace, which states:

§91.143 Flight limitation in the proximity of space flight operations. When a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) is issued in accordance with this section, no person may operate any aircraft of U.S. registry, or pilot any aircraft under the authority of an airman certificate issued by the Federal Aviation Administration, within areas designated in a NOTAM for space flight operation except when authorized by ATC.

So violation of the NOTAMed airspace is a violation of 91.143.

In my experience (5 years working launch ops) the issue usually arises with GA aircraft that want to watch. If someone enters the area, ATC will try to contact them by radio. There are also helicopters and or plane that can intercept and escort the aircraft clear. Space Shuttle launches had the largest contingent of aircraft. Some small booster ops might have one helo or a King Air to deal with intruders.

The aircraft can also be used to get the attention of boats in the area.

Whether you scrub a launch or not depend on the launch window. I've seen them range from a few minutes to several hours. A violator at the wrong time will cause a scrub with a short window, while you can handle the delay with a larger window.


It kind of depends of how much you are violating.

For Kourou Space center, according to the following sources (french):

  • First step is a simple radio contact.

No big deal if you can respond, excuse yourself and leave quickly.

  • Second one is interception by an helicopter.

I remember seeing an emission on youtube where they do that. It involves someone aiming directly at the pilot with an assault rifle

Source: http://www.defense.gouv.fr/actualites/dossiers/guyane-le-role-des-militaires-dans-ce-departement-d-outre-mer/guyane/operation-titan-securisation-sol-air


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