A Tool For Travel
Airspace & Chart Reading for PPG Pilots
Exploring new areas by ppg is an experience in freedom
seldom even imagined just a few short years ago. As with most freedoms it
carries some extra responsibility…one of those is
making sure you’re in allowable airspace.
This information is intended to provide a working
knowledge of how to determine if the air above is legal. Barring a
knowledgeable local pilot, the best way to learn the “where of legal
air” is to purchase and become familiar with the Aeronautical Sectional
Chart for that area. Big cities have more detailed versions covering just
their vicinity called VFR Terminal Area Charts…and they more detailed.
Sectional and Terminal Area charts are available from the local airports, the
pilot shops such as Sporty's for about $8 each. New, updated ones come out every 6
months and must be used to avoid blundering into newly added restricted
airspace (of which there is much lately).
Excerpts from charts presented in
this article are NOT FOR NAVIGATION! These charts will be long out of
date by the time you read.
Among other things, this short regulation says we must stay out of class A,
B, C, D and some E airspace, prohibited and restricted areas, and other
airspace as given by a notice to airman (NOTAM). There is also a
recommendation (on the charts) to stay out of charted wildlife areas.
We can fly
in any of these airspace classes by having prior permission granted by the controlling facility.
There are also visibility and cloud clearance
requirements based on what kind of airspace we operate in.
The best way to learn this information would be a
session or two with a certified FAA flight instructor. Next best would be
some good videos such as "The Complete Airspace Review" and
"VFR Cross Country Flying"...both from the well known producer
of such flicks, King Schools (www.kingschools.com).
They are about $30 each.
Also note that for complete details, each chart has a
legend on the back of the folded cover that explains most of it’s
contents. This article is intended to help understand how it’s used in
the context of our sport without trying to dredge up every little nuance of
Getting the Info
While the sectional chart is
a great source of
information, it is also the least current. They are printed every six
months and new airspace frequently pops up or changes frequently. A necessary source
of info for some of these tips is the Flight Service Station (FSS).
There are times when prohibited airspace is created
temporarily. That is when a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) is issued restricting
overflight during the affected time for listed locations and altitudes. In
the current security environment, adherence to these are critical.
NOTAM information can be obtained by
calling a Flight Service Station (FSS) at 1.800.wx-brief. Tell them you're
an ultralight, where and when you want to fly and they'll give you any
pertinent info. A bonus of this call is that you'll also be able to get weather around your area if desired (just ask for
an abbreviated briefing with local weather, forecast and NOTAMS).
One example of when airspace will
become off-limits by NOTAM is whenever the president or other
dignitary comes to town: they don’t want private planes or ultralights
(us) buzzing about for obvious reasons. They will specify a bunch of areas
and times that will cover the expected route, including alternate routes
they will travel. Nowadays these are taken extremely seriously; blundering
into one might be a one-time mistake.
Another time airspace is NOTAM’d off-limits is after
a natural disaster. This is an effort to keep the area clear for rescue or
relief traffic. These cases are usually going to be obvious because the
disaster creating the airspace will be all over the news.
The boundaries will frequently be in the form of a
radial and distance from a VOR (see offset above).
example (reference the excerpt): a truck carrying propane explodes on the
highway southwest of Vero Beach. The highway is closed and a
rescue/firefighting operation gets underway. FAA managers, at the request of
local officials, will close the airspace over the area by issuing a NOTAM
- prohibiting overflight below 2000’ and within 2nm
(nautical miles) of an area defined by the 210°
radial at 7nm. Flying there would be particularly dangerous due to
disaster related air traffic and would guarantee yourself special attention:
everybody in officialdom knows you’re not supposed to be there.
Basically if there has been such a disaster you’ll
likely know about it and can expect the area to be off limits. Since there’s
likely to be cameras rolling from the various news outlets it would be
good to find out about any possible restricted areas.
The ABC’s of Keeping Clear
The most relevant piece of
knowledge regarding airspace is that almost anywhere you go, you're
probably launching in G airspace at the surface with E airspace overlying
it 700' (or 1200') overhead. Minimum for that airspace require remaining
clear of clouds and having at least a mile visibility. When you pop into E
airspace, airplanes are more likely to be found tere and you must maintain
at least 3 mile visibility and stay 500' below, 2000' to the side and
1000' above any cloud.
Class A airspace is above 18000’...no
problem staying clear of that. Class B is where the big airplanes land.
There are only a handful of these around the country surrounding the
largest airports and generally we wouldn’t want to go anywhere near
them. Unfortunately they do usually block out otherwise usable launches
that are indeed far enough away, so we must go to the chart.
The usual analogy of the
three dimensional chunk of air
carved out by a “B” is the upside down wedding cake (diagramed left). Near the airport
it goes right down to the surface, as you get further away from the primary
airport the floor goes above ground level, allowing us to fly in that
area. That would be flying beneath “B” airspace and is perfectly legal.
For example, in the
above depiction there is a ring with 80 over 40. That means the B airspace goes from
4000' above sea level (ASL) to 8000' ASL. So in the area of that ring you
could fly up to 4000'. Keep in mind all those little airplane guys know
that and will frequently squeeze around these rings just below those
area where it has 80 over SFC means from the surface up to 8000'. That is
the off-limits area for launching (or flying into at any altitude).
Most "B" areas don't have
shapes, they follow beaches, prominent roads, terrain and such so the
pilots who are flying visually can stay out of them. The Miami chart
pictured is quite circular with some of the inner sections following parts
of the beach.
Class C and Terminal Radar
Class C is designated just like
but with a magenta line instead of blue. It has altitudes depicted in the
same way with a floor and ceiling and is just as prohibited
These airports, like the their
larger "B" brethren have an approach control facility associated
airspace was designated into the alphabetic descriptions (for compliance
with world standards) there were distinct names for each type. One that
remains is the Terminal Radar Service Area (TRSA).
To the left is the
Rockford, IL TRSA. There is not quite enough traffic to be a class
"C" and It is designated with a dark gray line. It is
permissible to fly in this airspace without talking to anyone although there will be a control tower
and class D airspace near the center (dashed blue lines) which is
prohibited (unless you have permission, of course).
The primary purpose is to point out
to airplane pilots that radar service is available but participation is
Tower Airports and Class D
Airports with control towers
are blue and those with no tower are magenta (purple). Furthermore an airport
with a control tower will generally have a blue dashed line around it.
That line designates “class D” airspace which prohibits our
operations (unless we talk to them).
DuPage airport (top) has Class D around it topping out at 3300'
above sea level (ASL). Although
Kissimmee airport (bottom) has a control tower it does not have class D
airspace around it since there is no dashed line. You could
legally fly only a mile away from this airport although that should be
done carefully as it is obviously busy enough to have a tower. Also note this can change at
any time so consult the NOTAMs or, better yet, call the tower
before flying nearby.
class D airspace typically goes up 2500' above ground level (AGL) and the
above-sea-level (ASL) altitude is depicted in the box. The DPA airport
(left) shows 33 which is 3300' ASL. The airport elevation is 758.
When aviation charts use italics it usually is to indicate elevations
referencinv mean sea level (MSL and ASL are the same thing). This includes
airports, mountains and obstructions.
you could fly right above the DPA airport at 3400' ASL. While legal this
would be complete folly because airplanes will be taking off and landing
at the airport and many will be overflying for the same reason...they
don't have to talk to anyone. It is some very crowded airspace and they're
not looking for essentially stationary ppg's.
also in the DPA example the 100/40 near the top of the picture. This
airport underlies Chicago's very busy O'Hare airport, the floor of who's B
airspace is at 4000'. So everyone not talking to either the DPA tower or
O'Hare approach is squeezing between 3300' and 4000' MSL.
there are a few control towered fields that do not have this "D" airspace (no
dashed line) and you can legally fly near these. It would obviously be
wise to check with the tower because they may have just obtained the
necessary traffic counts to receive their “D” designation.
There are many flavors of airspace where the military
stakes a claim. Most of it is actually not forbidden zone but given the
nature of their use it would best be avoided. All military airspace is
designated the same way with rows of parallel lines in either blue or red
(see MARIAN MOA below for an example).
There are also VR and IR's which are
visual routes and instrument routes. These thin gray lines are not restricted legally but be aware they frequently fly very
low and fast along them (up to 270 mph!).
Prohibited and Restricted areas generally are no-no’s.
Flying in one of these while it’s in use would be utter folly. But even
these may allow flight…they are in effect from different
altitudes (sometimes only high up) and different times or days. This
information is usually located on the chart. If planning on flying in one
of these areas you must call the Flight Service Station (FSS) at 800 WX-BRIEF
to verify the times though. The sectionals come out every 6 months and
these times are updated every 56 days so the chart’s info could be old.
Tell the FSS briefer you’re an ultralight pilot and he will find out
whether it’s “hot”. He has a direct line usually to the controlling
agency (usually the enroute “center”) and will relay the information to
you…and the call is free!
Alert areas, Controlled Firing areas and MOA’s do not
actually prohibit flight…they are there as a warning that military
operations will be conducted and pilots should “look out”. Keep in
mind some military training involves low-altitude helicopter or jet
training where they do various “nap-of-the-earth” type work. That
would put them smack in the middle of our favorite altitudes.
the military pilots in these areas comply with FAA regs but these military
folks probably aren’t going to be looking for stray ppg’s!
are not actually prohibited but the admonishment on the charts requests
pilots to remain at least 2000' AGL when overflying them. They are
designated in blue with a solid line that has dots running along
just inside the line.
the example to the left, the Verde River Bald Eagle Breeding Area roughly
follows a river. This area is about 2 miles wide. Note that it overlaps
another, rectangular shaped, wildlife area south of it (whose name is not
the "PXR 025°". It is part of the PHX class B airspace
depiction and is the 25 degree radial from the PXR (Phoenix) VOR. It aids
airplane pilots who have the special VOR receiver equipment to identify
the outlines of the B airspace although most of this is now done with GPS.
E & G Airspace
all of our flying is going to be in this airspace. We can legally
take-off, fly around in, and land in both E & G airspace. The
difference between the two is only in the required cloud clearance and
visibility requirements. The vast majority of the United States is covered
by G (the least restrictive) and then E on top of that...meaning that our
freedom to fly is indeed bountiful.
most areas of the country the G airspace goes from the surface up to 1200'
AGL. If there's a nearby airport that sometimes gets lowered to 700' AGL.
Above the G airspace is E which has more restrictive visibility
requirements but we can certainly fly in it.
airports where airplanes are likely to be letting down on an instrument
approach, the floor of E airspace lowers to 700 feet. That is depicted by
a shaded magenta outline. In the example around Pontiac airport it is a
circle but sometimes it has weird shapes with extensions that stick out.
the example of Pontiac, the area within 5 miles of the airport up to 700'
AGL is class G airspace (requiring only a mile visibility). Above 700' is
class E airspace requiring 3 mile visibility. You could launch from the
airport with visibility as low as a mile but couldn't go over 700' unless
the visibility was at least 3 miles.
most of the busy class B airspace areas there is a 30 mile ring that says
"Mode C". This has no bearing on our ability to fly inside that
mode C "veil" pertains to certified aircraft with an electrical
system and stipulates that they must have a transponder with altitude
encoding. That equipment transmits to the radar controllers their altitude
along with some other information. We, as ultralights, are exempt from
this requirement. Obviously we do have to stay out of the various layers
of the class B airspace.
I've found myself in a new area and one of the first tasks is to buy a
chart if I don't have one. Then by comparing what's on the chart with the
road map I can make sure I'm legal from an airspace perspective.
a couple occasions the places where I really wanted to fly were in
someone's class D airspace. So far I have been able to secure permission
by adhering to agreed upon times, altitudes and routes.
this information will help in your own effort to beware of legal air.
"Nearly the entire country is covered with G
airspace and has E overlying it. But we necessarily must spend most of our
understanding on the remaining exceptions."
Given the limitations of Sport Pilot, we can be hugely
grateful that our part 103 craft is exempt. Lets all strive to keep it
that way by staying clear of the risks that could end it.
There are several useful areas on the chart besides their maps. The
legend defines most of the symbology, there's a section that lists all the
restricted/prohibited areas along with altitudes, times of operation
and the controlling agency that can tell you whether they are in use
If you live in restricted airspace of any kind, it is possible you still may be able to fly there. Contact the controlling
facility to find out. If it is a Class D with a control tower, ask to talk
with the tower chief. If you'll be flying regularly out of the same area
you may be able to arrange a "letter of agreement" detailing the
conditions under which you can fly. Usually it's best have a route that
exits their airspace below a certain altitude. Telephone numbers will
usually appear under "US Government, Department of Transportation,
FAA Control tower." Failing that, contact flight service at 800 WX-BRIEF
to ask for the number.
That it's drawn in blue means it has a control tower (see below). The blue dashed line
around it is the class D where we cannot fly and the top of the Class D airspace goes
to 1600 feet Above Sea Level (ASL). The Orlando Sanford control tower
frequency is 120.3 Mhz, operates part-time (the *), is at 55' elevation
and has right traffic patterns for runway 9R, 9C, 22R and 36...the other
runways use standard left patterns. Fortunately, how to decode this
information is described on the chart's legend.
Class E Surface Area
The dashed blue lines encircling the tower controlled (blue) Sanford
airport denote its class D airspace. The magenta dashed line in a
rectangle shape off the left is the "class E airspace designated for
an airport". It's also called the surface area of class E and it
requires permission. It is the only case of class E where you must have permission from the controlling
Private and Sod
Airports without a hard surfaced runway are not filled in...they're
just an airport-sized ring. Usually they have an R in them indicating they
are restricted in some way. That is generally because they are private
airports. Note that if you can get permission these frequently make great
launch sites. Those that do not have the R are public and frequently are
ultralight-friendly fields. Airports that are specifically ultralight
fields will have a symbol of an ultralight above them.
Sebastian airport (X26) is magenta meaning it is uncontrolled (no
tower). You could go fly out of there provided the owner didn't mind.
There is no requirement to talk to anyone.
I fly here?
You want to fly Melbourne beach, launching from where the
"B" is on "Palm Bay". This is legal but almost
immediately north of the launch you get into the magenta dashed lines that
denote the "surface area of class E designated for an airport".
That airspace is off-limits without permission from Melbourne tower.
How about the airport near the
bottom, can I fly there? Yup, that airport has class G airspace up to
700'. You could legally take off from there with as little as a mile
visibility and staying clear of clouds. If you wanted to go above 700' you
must have 3 mile visibility and follow the cloud clearances listed below
in the table.
I Fly Here?
You want to fly at the western tip of Lake Mendota. The Blue airport on
the right is Madison's Dane County, an airline airport with Class C
airspace around it (the magenta solid rings). The first ring around Dane
Co. says 49/SFC meaning the class C goes from the surface up to 4900' MSL.
But the outer ring shows 49/23 meaning the class C goes from 2300' up to
4900' MSL. That means that your launch from the western tip of the lake is
in class G airspace (up to 700' AGL) and is perfectly legal. You can fly
up to 2300' MSL (well ok, 2299'). The magenta airports are also in class G
airspace so you are not restricted by them.
I Fly Here?
You want to fly from the 2239 foot hill (near the middle of the picture
below). There's a magenta airport SE of the launch and the outer ring (PXR
25 NM) of the PHX class B airspace is to the North. The 30 nautical mile
Mode C ring has no bearing on us. The shaded magenta ring that describes a
5 mile ring around the magenta airport denotes the floor of E airspace as
700'...outside of that ring the floor is 1200'. You are legal to launch
from there and only need 1 statute mile visibility as this is class G
airspace. If you climb up above 700' you get into E airspace. That
requires 3 sm visibility and the more restrictive cloud clearance limits
specified in the table below.
If you are flying below 10,000 feet and out of the busy controlled
airspace areas (B, C, and D) then the following abbreviated table contains
all the required FAR 103 Cloud Clearance and visibility minimums you'll
need. Visibilities are listed in statute miles.
||Dist From Clouds
|G: up to
|Clear of clouds
Jeff Goin "Working"