12 Places Airplanes Aren’t Allowed to Fly Over
You probably know that planes can't fly close to the White House—but did you know about Mount Vernon and Disney World?
How do no-fly zones work?
No-fly zones are primarily a safety measure. They prohibit aircraft from getting too close to certain places, to deter or at least identify potentially hostile aircraft. How does a place become a no-fly zone? Well, “there is…no single process for setting aside prohibited airspace,” explains Daniel Burnham, flight expert for Scott’s Cheap Flights. The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), which regulates American airspace, can establish no-fly zones, but that’s not the only way to get one. Sometimes no-fly zones come into being due to executive order or acts of Congress. Most (but not all) of the no-fly zones in the United States have some kind of military or government association. Most of them are also places that you can still visit, as long as you don’t approach by plane—but there are plenty of other forbidden places no one will ever be allowed to visit.
And this doesn’t mean that no planes can ever fly over these places, ever. As Burnham explains, many of these zones restrict airplane flight to 3,000 feet above or higher, meaning planes can’t fly any closer than that. So this means that “large passenger aircraft flying at cruising altitude would seldom be affected by these provisions,” Burnham explains, since passenger planes fly much higher than that for the majority of their flights. “The FAA ruling…makes the argument that a minimum altitude of 3,000 feet is about right for the navy to identify and shoot down incoming hostile aircraft without too much trouble,” Burnham says. So where, throughout the United States, are airplanes not allowed to get too close?
The nation’s capital, where the president, members of Congress, and centers of government reside, is possibly the no-fly zone that makes the most sense. There is a “Special Flight Rules Area” that covers a 30-mile radius around Ronald Reagan International Airport. It’s the reason Reagan International Airport is one of the airports with the most nerve-racking takeoffs and landings. Pilots have to carefully maneuver around the no-fly zones, sometimes swerving and creating a somewhat uncomfortable takeoff for passengers. And the proceedings if someone violates the no-fly zone are no joke. In 2005, a pilot and flying student accidentally veered into the no-fly zone; all of the Capitol had to be hastily evacuated.
Another common residence of POTUS makes this list of no-fly zones: Camp David in Maryland. This presidential country retreat is a “prohibited area,” which defines the airspace that craft must avoid. Prohibited areas like these are designated with a P, for “prohibited,” followed by a number; Camp David’s is P-40. The area designated by P-40 has a radius of three nautical miles. The prohibition is always in effect, but when the president is visiting, the no-fly zone is expanded by way of a TFR, or temporary flight restriction. The TFR grows the no-fly zone to ten nautical miles. Find out the rules First Families are supposed to follow.
This infamous military base that had hordes of people planning to storm it in 2019, hoping to catch sight of extraterrestrial evidence, is a no-fly zone like several other military locations. The area around it is restricted to most, but not all, air travel. The only commuter flights allowed to fly to Area 51 must originate from a specific terminal at a specific airport (Las Vegas’s McCarran International Airport). The planes themselves must use the call sign “Janet” to get clearance to enter the airspace. Learn more secrets the government is keeping about Area 51.
Disneyland and Disney World
Yes, both of the United States Disney parks are protected by no-fly zones—Florida’s Walt Disney World and California’s Disneyland. They were included in a massive air-safety-focused act of Congress, Operation Liberty Shield, enacted in 2003. But Disney World actually already had some degree of protection from too-close airplanes; they didn’t want low-flying aircraft scaring Animal Kingdom’s fauna. And while Disney parks were seeking the safety provided by a no-fly zone—they’re some of the country’s most major, and culturally significant, tourist destinations, after all—Disney also had a more self-serving reason. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Disney was plagued by aerial advertisements, including religious and political messages and ads for competitors like SeaWorld, flying over their parks. They saw the no-fly zone as a perfect way to keep them away.
Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay
You’ll find this naval base in St. Marys, Georgia; it’s the only spot on the east coast where you’ll find Ohio class submarines. Its no-fly zone, P-50, was established in late 2005. The U.S. Navy requested the no-fly zone and the FAA then proposed it, as is usually the case. “Most of these prohibited zones are created in response to a special interest group making a request,” Burnham explains; often U.S. military branches are the groups to make requests. Did you know about these crazy-but-real secret U.S. government operations?
Naval Base Kitsap
In the other corner of the continental U.S. is Naval Base Kitsap, which was created in 2004 from the merging of two separate naval bases located across the Elliott Bay from Seattle. The largest naval facility in the Navy Region Northwest, Kitsap houses surface ships, submarines, and ballistic missiles. This no-fly zone is P-51, which might be a little confusing because you’d expect that one to be, well, Area 51.
Pantex nuclear assembly plant
This spot, located northeast of Amarillo, Texas, is exactly what it sounds like—it’s a site for the production of nuclear weapons. (However, a new weapon hasn’t been completed since 1991.) Pantex also dismantles missiles and keeps tabs on existing ones. It’s one of several locations run by the National Nuclear Security Administration—but it’s actually the only one with a no-fly zone.
Here’s a site that actually has no associations with the military! It’s one of only a few recreational spots that make the list (a distinction it shares with the Disney parks!). The home of George Washington, which is a National Historic Landmark, is known as “P-73.” So even though it’s located in northern Virginia, it’s actually separate from the prohibited zone around Washington, D.C., which is P-56. Even would-be aerial photographers are not exempt from the no-fly restriction; their site says that aerial photography is “rarely permitted.” And while visitors can still take photos of Mount Vernon, there are plenty of places that forbid you from taking pictures.
Kennedy Space Center
With actual space vessels taking off from this spot in Cape Canaveral, Florida (yes, even today!), we can totally understand why the government doesn’t want commercial airlines zipping around close by. Find out some surprising things you never knew about space travel.
Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
Many of these no-fly zones are actually fairly recent, at least in permanent form, which makes sense after national security surged in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. But this one has been around for decades! This beautiful spot, comprising over a million acres in Minnesota, was designated a no-fly area way back in 1949. President Harry Truman signed an executive order, another way that a place can become a no-fly zone. Considering this, perhaps it’s more surprising that more natural spots, including national parks, don’t get the no-fly protection. But this is one of very few no-fly areas whose purposes are purely recreational. And as part of Minnesota’s Superior National Forest, which in turn is part of the U.S. National Forest System, it does still have a governmental association.
Bush Family Ranch
This “Western White House,” also known as Prairie Chapel Ranch, was acquired by George W. Bush in the late 1990s. He and his wife Laura finished construction on the house itself in 2001 and it has been a popular getaway for his family ever since. It’s just outside of Crawford, Texas, and has seen many celebrated visitors besides just the two former presidents boasting the Bush name, including many foreign dignitaries. A few years ago, the no-fly zone surrounding the Bush Family Ranch was breached; it turned out that the prohibited area, P-49, had been slightly expanded with a temporary flight restriction. The offending, unknowing pilot had to land at the nearby Waco Airport, wait 90 minutes for the Secret Service, and undergo an interview and plane inspection. But presidents have to follow rules too; learn about some things no U.S. president is allowed to do while in office.
These spots are not the end-all, be-all for where planes in the United States can’t fly—far from it. “In addition to these permanent sites, the FAA imposes temporary no-fly zones around major sporting events and a variety of military bases while exercises are being conducted,” Burnham told RD.com. And these temporary flight restrictions are actually pretty frequent, as you can see right on the FAA’s website; there may even be several in a single day.
A fairly new player complicating the business of no-fly zones? Drones, and their rising popularity. The FAA is struggling to monitor these usually unmanned objects and where they can and cannot fly. Traditional no-fly zones “are for commercial and private aircraft; unmanned drones face far more limits as to where they can fly,” Burnham explains. “In general, drones are prohibited from flying over a wider range of military facilities, federal prisons, nuclear test sites, airports, and specific national monuments—particularly those which contain critical infrastructure, like the Hoover Dam.” Finally, states, counties, and cities can also pass their own legislation restricting drone usage, and those restrictions can vary greatly depending on the area. Read on to find out some things your airplane pilot wishes you knew.