How to Avoid a Military Intercept Situation While Flying

F-16
F-16s in formation. Image: Getty

As a pilot, temporary flight restrictions are a bit scary, right? Anything that can result in your airplane being shot out of the sky or losing your pilot certificate can be a bit unnerving, of course, but these situations are rare and often don't end all that dramatically.

Nevertheless, TFRs (like the one around Washington D.C., which is hardly 'temporary') are not to be taken lightly. One look at this sentence, taken from this Washington, D.C. TFR and you'll see why: 

THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT MAY USE DEADLY FORCE AGAINST THE AIRBORNE AIRCRAFT, IF IT IS DETERMINED THAT THE AIRCRAFT POSES AN IMMINENT SECURITY THREAT.

Right. So how do we avoid this 'deadly force' thing while we're out there flying around? By planning ahead, paying attention, and knowing your intercept procedures, that's how. 

Plan ahead: 

  • Always, always, always check NOTAMS and TFRs before you depart! In fact, it's best to check these before you even begin flight planning, so as to avoid having to re-plan a flight around a new TFR or a closed runway. 
  • Call or get an online briefing from a flight service briefer.

Pay attention: 

  • You know those weather briefings you get? You know that part where the briefer starts discussing NOTAMs, which includes a list of radial and DME pairings, airports and fixes that you've never heard of? Well, you may actually want to pay attention. The briefer may be giving you coordinates for a restricted area or other special use airspace you might want to avoid. If you're not sure, ask the briefer for a better description or go online and look at the graphical display of the area to be sure your route doesn't take you through an area you're not supposed to be. 
  • Always file a flight plan. By filing a flight plan, you're alerting ATC to your whereabouts, and it's a way to get a second pair of eyes on your route. If the flight service specialist sees that your route takes you through a special use airspace or a TFR, he'll alert you before you even get off the ground
  • As yet another layer of security, fly IFR when possible or if you're flying VFR, obtain flight following services from ATC whenever possible. This will add yet another layer of protection because ATC will likely be aware of any TFRs, restricted airspace or prohibited areas. Don't forget, though, that if you're flying under visual flight rules, you and you alone are responsible for the safety of the flight, and ATC is not responsible for your position. At the very best, they might alert you before you enter controlled or restricted airspace.

Know Intercept Procedures 

If you're intercepted by a military aircraft, first regain your composure. I imagine a person's first reaction is surprise, then awe, and then sheer terror. Try to relax and remember those intercept procedures you learned back in that private pilot ground school. 

  • Don't move. Really. Don't make any abrupt changes in your speed or altitude, so as not to alarm the pilot of the military aircraft. 
  • If you're already talking to an ATC facility, advise them of your situation.
  • If you're not already talking to a controller, you'll want to tune in your 121.5 emergency frequency immediately. It's likely that someone will be monitoring and will try to reach you via that frequency. 
  • If the military aircraft turns slowly to the left, follow it.
  • If the military aircraft circles over a runway, you should land on that runway.
  • In general, rocking the aircraft's wings means that you understand and will comply with instructions. Flashing lights at quickly and at random intervals means you're in distress, and flashing your lights at regularly spaced intervals indicates that you cannot comply with their instructions. 
  • Failing to comply with intercept procedures CAN put your life in danger. If the pilots of the intercepting military aircraft think that you pose a threat in any way, they may take action, which can include deadly force. 
  • If you made an honest mistake and did not pose a risk to anybody and did not cause the government too much grief, you might get off with a warning. But at the very least, you will have to file a report and explain the situation. Enforcement action could be taken.