Airspace Rules: the Upside Down Wedding Cake

Airspace Rules: the Upside Down Wedding Cake

Once you’ve studied the rules of airspace for a while it will all start to make sense. However, your first look at how airspace is designated might seem odd. Who designed this plan anyway?

Actually, the rules of airspace over the United States are those accepted around the world. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) set the rules for the world, and most countries have adopted them, including the United States. Your sport-pilot certificate doesn’t authorize you to fly outside of the United States, but once you have a private pilot certificate or higher you can do so and the rules will be the same in every country. So let’s take a look at how the sky is mapped.

Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) flights are made by pilots who have earned an instrument rating on the top of their private pilot or higher certificate. Visual Flight Rules (VFR) pilots can’t fly under IFR rules, but IFR pilots can fly VFR rules if they wish.

IFR could be called assisted flying. The pilot gets information and directives from air traffic controllers who, using radar and other electronics, can “see” the aircraft—and hundreds of others—on their radar screens. An air traffic controller advises the pilot what to do to “maintain separation” or keep a safe distance away from other aircraft in the area. In addition, the IFR pilot is trained how to fly the aircraft using instruments inside the aircraft rather than visual references to the ground. Otherwise, how would commercial and business aircraft fly through clouds and land at airports during a rain or snowstorm?

Even if you plan to always fly VFR you should learn about and take advantage of air traffic control or about using instruments. Many private pilots will become commercial pilots with instrument ratings. In other Flight Guides, I tell you more about getting tracking from air traffic control (ATC), called a flight watch. Your flight instructor will give you some instruction on using instruments for flight in emergencies.

FAA Airspace for VFR Flight (Video)

Airspace Rules: the Upside Down Wedding Cake

When looking at airspace, it can appear a little like you are looking at an upside-down wedding cake! But those concentric cylinders are crucially important. They all have different rules and regulations, so it really pays to know the airspace rules for the block you are flying in.

I’m going to go through the various types of airspace with you, tell you a little about what you can and can’t do, and show you the things you really need to know. Once you’ve studied airspace rules for a while, it will all start to make sense.

Is US Airspace Unique?

Actually, the rules of airspace over the United States are those accepted around the world. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) set the rules for the world, and most countries have adopted them, including the United States.

Your sport-pilot certificate doesn’t authorize you to fly outside of the United States. Still, once you have a private pilot certificate or higher, you can do so, and the rules will be the same in every country.

Let’s take a look at how the sky is divided.

VFR vs. IFR. What’s the Difference?

Before we discuss airspace, we need to look at an important distinction in how people fly.

There are two general ways to pilot an aircraft:

Why is this distinction so important?

Well, Flying VFR means you must use outside visual references. To do that, the visibility needs to be relatively good. It is completely prohibited for a VFR-qualified pilot to fly into the cloud.

So…

Visual Flight Rules (VFR) pilots can’t fly under IFR rules. However, IFR pilots can fly VFR rules if they wish.

Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) flights are made by pilots who have earned an instrument rating on the top of their private pilot or higher certificate.

IFR could be called assisted flying. The pilot gets information and directives from air traffic controllers who can “see” the aircraft and hundreds of others on their radar screens using radar and other electronics. An air traffic controller advises the pilot what to do to “maintain separation” or keep a safe distance away from other aircraft in the area.

 In addition, the IFR pilot is trained how to fly the aircraft using instruments inside the aircraft rather than visual references to the ground. Otherwise, how would commercial and business aircraft fly through clouds and land at airports during a rain or snowstorm?

Even if you plan to fly VFR, you should learn about and take advantage of air traffic control or use instruments. Many private pilots will become commercial pilots with instrument ratings. In other Flight Guides, I tell you more about getting tracking from air traffic control (ATC), called a flight watch. Your flight instructor will give you some instruction on using instruments for flight in emergencies.

All about IFR/VFR from Real Air Traffic Controller (Video)

What Are the 7 Classifications of Airspace?

There are 7 classes of airspace in total. They are labeled as follows; A, B, C, D, E, G… Plus another category called “Special use airspace”.

Within these 7 categories is a key subdivision.

Class A – E is called “controlled airspace”.

Class G is called “uncontrolled airspace”.

Here’s what you need to know about each.

Class A Airspace

As a sport pilot, you shouldn’t need to worry about class A airspace at all.

Why?

As a general rule, the lower limit lies at about 18,000ft (or three miles up if you prefer). The upper limit is around 60,000 feet! This is far beyond the performance of even the most optimal sports aircraft.

To add to this, it is IFR only, meaning that only pilots and aircraft navigating using instruments will be permitted to enter.

Class B Airspace

Class B airspace is a real one to watch!

This is the type of airspace that normally surrounds major international airports. This appears as a classic ‘upside-down wedding cake’. Narrow at the bottom near the airport and expanding upward. The lower limit of this airspace is the surface, and it normally extends and widens to 10,000ft above the surface.

It is designed to protect aircraft navigating on instruments, meaning you’ll need permission to enter.

Class C Airspace

Class C airspace is like Class B airspace’s little brother. It is provided around smaller airports that still have air traffic control. Like with class B airspace, it is designed to protect aircraft navigating on instruments only.

It is another one to watch out for, and it extends from the surface to 4000 feet in most cases.

To enter, you must get permission from ATC and must be able to maintain two-way radio contact at all times.

Class D Airspace

Class D airspace is very similar to class C. The main difference is the vertical extent of the airspace. It extends up to 2,500 feet from the surface, as with class C airspace, two-way radio communication is mandatory.

One interesting thing about class D airspace is that due to its relatively low level, you may not be permitted to fly through it, but what you may be able to do is fly over it without speaking to anyone!

Class E Airspace

Provided you steer clear of controlled airports, class E airspace is the one that you are most likely to run into. Remember, it is controlled airspace, meaning you’ll need permission to enter and let somebody know you are there. This airspace generally exists away from airports and is designed to allow IFR traffic the safety to fly in zero visibility without the risk of colliding with another airplane.

As a result of the above, it generally only starts at 1200ft. Meaning that if you fly beneath this altitude, you will rarely encounter it.

Class G Airspace

Class G airspace is everyone’s favorite, as it is uncontrolled. This means you can enter and do as you please.

The upper limit of class G airspace is normally ‘capped’ by class E, so you need to pay attention if you want to climb higher.

Special Use Airspace

Special use airspace is something you generally want to steer clear of.

Why?

It contains a lot of things that aren’t conducive to a pleasant day out. Such as: –

  • Restricted areas
  • Military airspace
  • Controlled firing areas
  • Government property
  • High volume training areas

If you have read my guide on FAR parts, you’ll already know where to find more information. But if not, it is well worth checking FAR Part 71 for further details.

Airspace Rules. The Bottom Line

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Aside from class G airspace, you will have to ask air traffic control for permission to enter. Alongside the rules relating to ATC, you will also have to observe minimum visibility requirements and watch the weather, as each class of airspace has different rules. Knowing your airspace is vital when you are planning a journey with a map. Why not head on over to my guide on charting a course to see how you would do it.

Stall Warning!

Sometimes you'll see references to MVFR, or marginal visual flight rules. These cover visibility that is close to the minimums for VFR flying. Things could get better—or worse. Remember that your personal limits should be more stringent than the FAA's and you shouldn't fly unless you are comfortable with the level of visibility where you are, where you are going, and the path you're taking.
QUOTE:
"Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore."
-- Andre Gide