Understanding and identifying the different classes of airspace is the preliminary step for UAS pilots. This is essential in order to keep your drone away from other drones and manned aircraft. Thus, the ATC (Air Traffic Controller) defines the controlled airspace into 5 main classes. Knowing which class of airspace your drone is flying in is highly useful. Certain airspace classes are strictly prohibited for civilian use and flying a drone there could be unlawful. Therefore, the FAA has issued a study guide for remote pilots. Drones are only permitted to fly below 400ft of altitude. Thus when flying in one of the Classes, the pilot would require special approval from the FAA. This guide will talk in-depth about all the classes of airspace:
This type of airspace is generally not meant for UAS operations. Hence, it isn’t of much use to drone pilots. The airspace that is at 18,000ft or FL600 (Flight Level 600: Pressure Altitude of 60,000ft) is called Class A. This type of airspace is the most highly regulated one and requires authorization from the FAA. Here, pilots only fly under IFR (Instrument Flying Rules).
This class of airspace is one of the high-risk airspaces. It is also the busiest and the most restrictive airspace as most commercial airliners like the Boeing and the Airbus fly here. Thus, for a drone to operate in this area it is highly essential that the pilot undergo certified training to do so and learn to recognize the airspace on a sectional chart. In reality, the airspace is in a 3D form which resembles a triple-layered upside-down cake. On a chart, it is a group of concentric blue-colored circles, with each circle denoting a different altitude. Class B airspace generally stretches from the surface to 10,000ft at the Mean Sea Level (MSL). If a remote pilot wishes to operate their UAS in the class B airspace they need to get special approval from the FAA and have to be in constant radio communication with the ATC for clearance.
Class C airspace stretches from the ground-level to 4,000ft. Airports that are busy and that have a substantial number of IFR operations around the year are certified as Class C airspace. This class of airspace is not as complex as Class B. It has two volumes and in 3D form, it resembles a two-layered upside-down cake. Manned and unmanned aircraft alike need authorization from the FAA to enter this airspace. On a sectional chart, Class C airspace is denoted by two magenta-colored concentric circles.
Class D airspace is a simple and most basic class of airspace present at busy airports that can warrant a control tower. A Class D airport has traffic throughout the year but it isn’t that congested to classify it in Class C airspace. Unlike Classes B & C, this one represents 3D single cylinder in form. The airspace stretches from ground level to 2,500ft. A Class D airspace is denoted by a single blue-dotted circle on a sectional chart. Operating a UAS in this airspace will require special approval from the FAA.
This airspace might be a little complicated to grasp for new pilots. Class E airspace can be defined in the following ways:
- It starts at 14,500ft MSL (Mean Sea Level), if not depicted on the chart.
- Otherwise, it generally starts at 1,200ft AGL (Above Ground Level)
- Around certain airports, this Class can also begin at 700ft AGL or the surface.
Additionally, this airspace represents most of the airspace in the National Airspace System. It includes everything within the Controlled Airspace and that does not include Classes A, B, C & D. A drone can be operated where the Class E airspace begins at the surface (within the 400ft perimeter), that’s the only part where pilots should be concerned. Despite the Class falling under the 400ft altitude perimeter, manned aircraft operate there without authorization and that’s why when drones enter the Class E airspace they still require permission from the FAA.
There are 5 different types of Class E airspaces: E1, E2, E3, E4, E5.
However, the one that is relevant to remote pilots is E2 because that’s the one that begins at surface level (below 400ft).
Identifying all these airspaces on a VFR chart can be a challenging task for remote pilots. With the inclusion of uncontrolled airspace called Class G, symbols can get confusing to read at times. In the next part of this series, we will discuss in-depth how to identify basic aeronautical symbols on a VFR sectional chart. Link to Part 2