Special Military Activity Routes

Here’s an airspace puzzle for SUA aficionados: What’s a SMAR (or Special Military Activity Route), as shown on this part of a sectional chart in Nevada, near the Wilson Creek VOR (ILC)?

SMAR look similar to other SUA (e.g., MOAs) on VFR charts. The areas they enclose are outlined with blue hash marks, and they have top and bottom altitudes. Unlike MOAs, restricted areas, and controlled firing areas, however, SMAR don’t have names or numerical designations.

A note on a sectional chart that includes a SMAR explains their purpose.

The chart identifies IFR Military Training Routes and Military Operations Area within which the Department of Defense conducts periodic operations involving Unmanned Aircraft Systems. These aircraft may be accompanied by military or other aircraft which provide the pilots of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems visual observation information about other aircraft operations near them.

In other words, they’re…special, as I learned while attending (virtually) the October 2022 session of the Aeronautical Charting Meeting hosted by the FAA.

A recommendation document submitted by a pilot for discussion (PDF) explained his confusion when he encountered a SMAR on a flight. As he explained to the group, he contacted Flight Service for information, but the specialist couldn’t help, because the pilot couldn’t provide a name for, or other details about, the airspace.

SMARS are noted on the border (but not the legend) of a sectional chart (see below).

And p. 31 of Aeronautical Chart User’s Guide also notes how SMAR are depicted:

But SMAR aren’t described in AIM Section 4. Special Use Airspace, and as the discussion at the meeting revealed, most pilots don’t understand how to get information about the status of a SMAR.

Experts at the ACM did reveal one important detail that’s essential when you want to check the status of a SMAR. These areas are associated with IFR Military Training Routes.

IFR MILITARY TRAINING ROUTES (IR)− Routes used by the Department of Defense and associated Reserve and Air Guard units for the purpose of conducting low-altitude navigation and tactical
training in both IFR and VFR weather conditions below 10,000 feet MSL at airspeeds in excess of 250 knots IAS.

P/C Glossary

In the example here, the SMAR outlines the lateral and vertical boundaries of IR200 when it’s being used for SMAR-related activities. So if you want to find out whether a SMAR is in use, check NOTAMS (active IR routes should be included in your preflight briefing) and use the IR number when you contact ATC or FSS.

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