Understanding Airspace for Paraglider Pilots

By Jim Macklow

The Federal Aviation Administration, in the interest of public safety, has defined a set of regulations which control access to and the use of the area above ground in which people normally fly. The FARs (Federal Aviation Regulations) cover all flying activities, including general aviation, ultralight vehicles, ballooning, skydiving, and even operations in space. There is a regulation which covers any area someone might use for air travel.

In order to safely operate a paraglider, a good understanding of the airspace system is required. There are three broad categories of airspace of which we should be aware:

  1. Airspace we cannot enter
  2. Airspace we can enter only with prior authorization from the controlling authority
  3. Airspace we can enter without prior authorization from any controlling authority

Paraglider pilots are most interested in the third category, as that is where paragliders fly the most. However, to avoid confusion while reading the FARs, AIM (Aeronautical Information Manual), and charts it is best to learn about airspace, first by determining the airspace in which one's flight will take place, in order to determine whether there are any restrictions/prohibitions in effect. FAR 103 is not written like many federal regulations. It does not explicitly say where we can fly, it only lists restrictions, allowing us to fly in the remainder. The airspace system is similarly defined, with the end result that Airspace Class G is not really explicitly defined, except as the space left over after all the controlled airspace has been defined.

The FAA defines airspace in the FARs, AIM and charts which are produced by National Aeronautical Charting Office of the FAA. There are online resources for the FARs and AIM:

Understanding the basics (charts, FARs, AIM)

Classes of Airspace

In order to understand where we can and cannot fly, we must have a firm understanding of the different airspaces and how to identify them on the charts produced by the FAA. The airspace is defined in several places:

If you wish to determine the exact location (by latitude/longitude) of any airspace, Victor airway, military operating area (etc. etc.), you can look up in FAA Order 7400.9S.

The chart below shows the different airspaces. The Class E airspace below 18000' is depicted in light blue. Class G (uncontrolled) is in white. Classes B, C, and D airspaces below 18000' are grey. The surface is depicted in brown. Note that the cloud clearance and visibility requirements are different depending on the mean sea level (MSL) altitude, above ground level (AGL) altitude, and the class of airspace. A text version is printed in FAR 103.23.

Click for large version

Since most of our flying is done in Class E and G airspace, we should first learn how to determine which airspace a flying site, LZ, or route lies. We need to know whether we are in Class G or E because the flight visibility and cloud clearance requirements differ.

Class G airspace is defined in the FARs as that airspace which is not controlled airspace. Thus, it is imperative to be able to identify airspace by looking at a wide area chart, sectional chart, or terminal air chart.

Identifying Classes of Airspace:

Click for large version

Click for large version

To do:

Better text description of airspace chart
Better scans of charts
Add scan of chart legend
Add explanation of different class E floors in Bishop map (magenta/broken blue)
Add explanation of class E surface extension from Burbank
Add explanation of Victor Airway crossing over Kagel launch
Add section on altitudes generally flown by IFR and VFR traffic

Victor Airways
1200' AGL to 17999' MSL, 8 NM miles wide
Exist between VOR/VORTAC navigation aids, IFR/VFR flight
L/MF airways in Alaska (similar to Victor airways) existe between L/MF navigation aids
Lots of IFR traffic (stay away from clouds in Victor airways)

IFR arrival and departure routes
altitude is printed next to the route
again, lots of IFR traffic, low to the ground, stay very clear of clouds

Understanding NOTAMs
How to obtain (1-800-WXBRIEF)
New:  All of class B from ground to 18000' is now restricted (need permission to enter)

Flying in MOAs

last updated 19 March 2009