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What Is a No-Fly Zone?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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A no-fly zone is an area or territory where planes are not permitted to fly. This can be part of a military operation in which international troops enforce a United Nations (UN) regulation. A no-fly zone can also concern certain areas of land around which a national government does not want planes. Such areas are often classified, containing sensitive information and technologies.

Past no-fly zones include Iraq (1993-2003) and Bosnia and Herzegovina (1993-95). The Iraqi no-fly zone was set up by international forces, including Britain and Turkey, to protect Kurdish people in the northern part of the country. A similar zone was set up in 1992 to protect the Shiite population of southern Iraq. The Bosnian no-fly zone was designed to protect civilians from air raids.

Combat-related no-fly zones are created by groups of nations in response to conflict or humanitarian crises. The right to set up such a zone is designated by a UN Security Council resolution but, as in Kosovo, this is not always required. Securing such resolutions requires a majority vote in the council and no dissenting voices from the permanent members, including Britain, France, the U.S., Russia, and China.

No-fly zones are enforced by a combination of forces who have volunteered to take part. Enforcement can only be carried out once the opposition's own air force has been disabled. In order to protect patrolling planes, the UN allies also need to knock out the opposition’s anti-aircraft defenses. Bombing raids often attempt to destroy airfield take off and landing strips, too.

No-fly zone enforcement also requires logistical support. This refers either to nearby aircraft carriers or friendly airfields in neighboring countries. Air forces will use these resources to refuel, maintain, and re-arm their aircraft. Due to a lack of ground radar to help guide airplanes, military offenses enacted to enforce a no-fly zone rely upon Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) planes.

Non-military no fly zones often protect sensitive areas and facilities. For example, the nuclear facility in Kahuta, Pakistan, is covered by such a zone. In the U.S., there are no-fly zones around areas such as the nuclear assembly plant in Amarillo, Texas, and the naval submarine base in Kings Bay, Georgia.

A lesser known use of no-fly zones is to protect areas of cultural importance. A fine example of this kind of no-fly zone is the one over and around Machu Picchu in Peru. Another covers the Taj Mahal in India. Other examples include Buckingham Palace and Whitehall in Britain, the Taipei 101 building in Taiwan, and Constitution Avenue in Islamabad, Pakistan.

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Discussion Comments
By Inaventu — On Mar 18, 2014

@mrwormy, I think military or civilian radar picks up on anything getting too close to a no-fly zone and the pilot usually gets some kind of warning. The ones that get the military escort either ignored that warning or had mechanical problems. I wouldn't want to be that pilot when he or she finally lands.

By mrwormy — On Mar 17, 2014

Every once in a while, I'll read a story about small planes wandering into a no-fly zone by mistake. It's amazing how fast the government can scramble jet fighters when a thing like that happens. The pilot probably had no idea he was that far off course, then the next thing he sees are F-16s on both sides of his plane.

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