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This Deadly Hazard Is Found In Several Restricted Areas: Balloons

Mistakenly flying into a restricted area doesn't just put you at risk for an FAA violation; it could lead to a potentially deadly mistake. Here's what you should know about one of the most unusual hazards in the sky...

Review: Restricted Areas

The 500+ restricted areas in the skies over the USA often contain unusual and hazardous operations, like missile launches, air combat training, and artillery firing. You'll also find restricted areas over large military installations or other areas deemed necessary by the FAA/government.

Restricted Areas have a blue hatched border and they're labeled starting with the letter "R". In this example, "R-2916" is the Restricted Area we'll cover in this article.

FAA

Restricted Area R-2916: Deadly Crash

In the Florida Keys, you'll find restricted area R-2916. It's located near Key West, specifically on Cudjoe Key. The 4 mile wide, circular restricted area exists from the surface to 14,000' MSL to separate a Tethered Aerostat Radar System (TARS) Balloon from any aerial traffic. Flying thousands of feet in the air, the balloon is tethered to the ground with a large wire. Nearly invisible to pilots, aerial wires like this create a potentially deadly aerial hazard.

On April 20th, 2007, an instrument-rated private pilot took off at night from the nearby Key West Airport. During an attempt to pick up an IFR clearance to Leesburg, Florida, the pilot mistakenly flew into R-2916. According to the witnesses, the airplane impacted the aerostat cable and a wing went "flying off." The remainder of the airplane went tumbling into the water near a group of islands, about 1/4 mile from where they were located. Unfortunately, all three occupants died in the crash.

Adrian Pingstone

Here are more details from the official NTSB report...

Restricted Area R-2916, which protects the TARS, is 4 statute miles (SM) in diameter and effective up to 14,000 feet mean sea level. The TARS flight director on duty stated that the aerostat had a cable payout of 8,000 feet, was on a pitch of 9.2 degrees, and had a tension of 2.4K pounds tether force. According to the flight director's log, the log entry directly preceding the accident showed no irregularities. At 2315, the flight director logged "an airplane may have crashed off the north pad into the channel", and at 2328, the log showed that the flight director initiated cable retraction at a rate of 25 feet per minute. During the course of the retraction it was discovered that the tether had incurred damage at its 4,533-feet cable payout level.

A video record from the camera mounted on the TARS flight control building, which monitors the aerostat while aloft, showed the aerostat's position lights, and at 2312:55, the video record showed the position lights of the accident airplane as it approached the tether. The video record showed the airplane striking the tether, and the airplane entering a spin, and descending seemingly uncontrolled, departing the camera's field of view.

The weather, about the time of the accident, at Key West International Airport (EYW), Key West, Florida, approximately 14 NM southwest of the accident site included the following: winds from 010 degrees at 7 knots, 10 statute miles visibility, clear skies, temperature 75 degrees F, dew point 59 degrees F, and altimeter 29.98 inches of mercury. Sunset was at 1951, and the moonset was at 2351 with approximately 14 percent of the moon's visible disk illuminated. The pilot made the following comment to ATC while airborne, "I have plenty of ceiling."

RV Factory

What Exactly Is A TARS Balloon?

Aerostats are large fabric envelopes filled with helium and can rise up to 15,000 feet while tethered by a single cable. The largest lift a 1000 kg payload to an operating altitude providing low-level, downward-looking radar coverage. The first aerostats were assigned to the United States Air Force in December 1980 at Cudjoe Key, Fla. During the 1980s, the U.S. Customs Service operated a network of aerostats to help counter illegal drug trafficking.

The primary mission for the balloons is to provide low-level radar surveillance along the southern border of the United States and Mexico, the Florida Straits, and the Caribbean. The radar assists federal agencies in a national drug interdiction program. "The secondary mission is to provide North American Aerospace Defense Command with low-level surveillance coverage for air sovereignty in the Florida Straits." Radar data is available to NORAD and CBP.

Since 2014, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been responsible for operating TARS balloons.

Wikimedia

Multiple Operating Locations

TARS balloons can be found at several locations around the country. When you're flying, pay extra attention to your sectional/low-IFR chart to analyze airspace around you. These restricted areas for tethered balloons are smaller than usual and could be easily missed. Here are a few locations where you can find TARS balloons operating:

  • Cudjoe Key, Florida
  • Deming, New Mexico
  • Eagle Pass, Texas
  • Fort Huachuca, Arizona
  • Lajas, Puerto Rico
  • Marfa, Texas
  • Matagorda, Texas
  • Morgan City, Louisiana
  • Rio Grande City, Texas
  • Yuma, Arizona
US CBP

What Else?

Have you heard of other unique hazards in restricted areas? Have you ever been cleared through a "cold" restricted area? Tell us in the comments below.

Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, certified flight instructor, and an Embraer 145 First Officer for a regional airline. He graduated as an aviation major from the University of North Dakota in 2018, holds a PIC Type Rating for Cessna Citation Jets (CE-525), and is a former pilot for Mokulele Airlines. He's the author of articles, quizzes and lists on Boldmethod every week. You can reach Swayne at swayne@boldmethod.com, and follow his flying adventures on his YouTube Channel.

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