Pilot’s guide to Class E Airspace

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You’ll spend most of your flight training time in Class E airspace, whether practicing slow flight or stalls in your local practice area or heading out on a cross-country flight. Class E airspace is often confusing though because it’s not clearly depicted on the sectional chart, like the ATC-controlled Classes B, C or D. While Class E airspace is considered “controlled airspace”, you do not need an ATC clearance to fly in it.

Since Class “E” airspace is basically “Everywhere”, most of the focus is placed on identifying the ceiling and floor of the airspace. Identifying the ceiling of Class E airspace is easy, since it always ends at 17,999′ MSL, with Class A airspace above (and then starts again at FL600/60,000′ if you’re out joyriding in an SR-71). Class E airspace rarely goes all the way to the surface, and in non-mountainous terrain, the floor of Class E airspace is typically 700 feet or 1,200 feet AGL. But how can you know the difference?

Class E airspace Floor

The answer lies within the faded magenta circle that typically surrounds nontowered airports. In the example above, the floor of Class E is 700′ on the faded side of the border (the airport surface area) and 1,200′ everywhere else. Stay below the floor of Class E airspace and you’ll remain in Class G airspace and take advantage of the less restrictive cloud clearance and visibility minimums.

Class E Airspace

Speaking of weather requirements, here’s a summary of the minimum cloud clearance and visibility required to operate in Class E airspace:

As with all things in aviation, there are many exceptions to the standard conventions. Here are some examples of Class E floor variations found throughout the US.

In this case, Class E extends to the surface, as identified by the dashed magenta line/box appearing adjacent to the Class D airspace:

Dashed magenta line designating class E extension to the surface on an aviation sectional map.

In some cases, the surface area for an airport is designated as Class E airspace, which is identified by the dashed magenta line/circle around the airport:

Class E surface area

Next, let’s review Class E airspace around federal airways. In this example around Victor 120, Class E airspace starts at 1,200′ AGL inside the blue feathered area and extends all the way to the Class A airspace above. The areas outside of the hard edge of the blue line are Class G airspace from the surface to 14,500′ MSL, and then Class E above that:

Class E Enroute Domestic Areas

For additional airspace review, check out our airspace quiz and see how well you know the entire airspace system.  You may also find this video on Class E airspace classification helpful. And for complete training on the entire National Airspace system plus much more, check out Sporty’s Learn To Fly Pilot Training Course.

Chris Clarke
5 replies
  1. Eric Puschmann says:

    I’m wondering if the chart showing Class G up to 14,500’ near S34, Montana, is current, or fairly old? ForeFlight shows this area as Class E above 1200. When teaching 20 years ago, I could point out many areas (west of the Mississippi) that were Class G to 14,500, but I think they’ve all gone away (with the exception of some in Alaska). Am I correct?

  2. Richard Cassel says:

    One of the hardest concepts to explain to pilots are airspace designations, especially with respect to controlled and uncontrolled airspace. Class E going to the surface around uncontrolled airports is a prime example. What I tell students is that even when the tower is closed, the instrument approaches are still in effect. Therefore, the FAA in attempting to protect IFR traffic brings the 3 mile visibility requirement of Class E airspace down to the surface. Eons ago the FAA made a blunder in their choice of words re: controlled and uncontrolled airspace. The implication is that this is about air traffic control. In a more practical sense, it is about traffic density, i.e. where you are more likely to encounter traffic, especially IFR traffic. Pointing out that the dashed magenta lines bring Class E Airspace to the surface is too abstract. Most pilots shrug and say, “that’s nice.” They don’t realize the the reason for doing so is that there is a greater likelihood of IFR traffic being present executing instrument approaches. If you are going to fly VFR in such airspace the FAA wants you to be able to see for three miles instead of one.

  3. Shadetree says:

    A couple of additional considerations regarding the class E or any other controlled airspace that touches the surface. 91.155 c, specifies:
    (c) Except as provided in § 91.157, no person may operate an aircraft beneath the ceiling under
    VFR within the lateral boundaries of controlled airspace designated to the surface for an airport
    when the ceiling is less than 1,000 feet.
    (d) Except as provided in § 91.157 of this part, no person may take off or land an aircraft, or
    enter the traffic pattern of an airport, under VFR, within the lateral boundaries of the surface
    areas of Class B, Class C, Class D, or Class E airspace designated for an airport –
    (1) Unless ground visibility at that airport is at least 3 statute miles; or
    (2) If ground visibility is not reported at that airport, unless flight visibility during landing or
    takeoff, or while operating in the traffic pattern is at least 3 statute miles.
    (e) For the purpose of this section, an aircraft operating at the base altitude of a Class E
    airspace area is considered to be within the airspace directly below that area.
    91.157 further addresses the criteria for obtaining a “special VFR” which not only is required at class B,C & D airports but also at class E airports where the class E touches the surface and the above visibility conditions including ceiling requirements are not met.

    At part time control towers the class D airspace either becomes class E to the surface or G when the tower is closed. The AF/D for that specific airport is that is found. KAVL Asheville Regional is an example of the airspace reverting to class G below class E @700’ agl.
    Overall great informative article, thanks Sporty for the weekly Fast Five.

  4. LDJones says:

    I find it is sometimes useful for students to understand WHY there is the lower E limits around some airports but not all. Generally speaking, if an airport is surrounded by a magenta circle there is some type of instrument approach, so we’re protecting the airspace to a lower level around those airports to accommodate aircraft descending on an approach. If the E starts at the surface, there’s a good chance there is an approach with lower minimus (i.e. ILS) at that airport.

  5. Joe says:

    @Eric Puschmann The Class G area to 14,500 I know about in the continental 48 at this time include one area SE of SJN VORTAC, and another in the Big Bend area of Texas, E of 1E2. And, around most every mountain peak that is at least 13,300 ;-)

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