We’ve heard that airways are highways in the sky. Short and simple. A more tedious task is trying to understand airspace types and their rules.
While airspace around airports seems straightforward (kind of), trying to understand class E airspace can make your head hurt. At least it did for me when I was working on my pilot’s license. It doesn’t help that on sectional charts, Class E airspace may be marked by different shapes, different colors, and by lines of different types. What exactly is Class E airspace, then?
Class E airspace is controlled airspace that typically covers areas outside of airports. Its standard vertical limits are between 14,500 feet and 17,999 feet Mean Sea Level (MSL), as well as above flight level (FL) 600. However, in some cases, it starts at the surface or just above it.
The shapes and colors marking Class E airspace on sectional charts mostly depend on the functions that the airspace is designated to perform, of which the Federal Aviation Administration has identified six (we will discuss each of them below). The main function of Class E is, however, the separation of traffic.
The specifics of Class E are described in great detail in the Aeronautical Information Manual and, to an extent, in other FAA literature, such as the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge. This article will break down the official FAA lingo and look at some examples of Class E airspace around the country.
Do I need to contact Air Traffic Control to fly in Class E airspace?
It depends. Class E is controlled airspace, but it mainly concerns flights Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) which do need to maintain radio contact with Air Traffic Control (ATC). Pilots flying under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) are not required to speak to ATC when in Class E airspace.
That being said, VFR pilots can ask ATC for flight following. If your request is not denied due to restricting conditions (e.g., high workload), you will receive traffic advisories. ATC will call out any nearby traffic but the responsibility for safe separation remains with you as the pilot.
Where does Class E airspace begin?
Class E airspace is likely the most unique among all U.S. airspace types because, on sectional charts, it may be marked with a dashed magenta line, a shaded magenta line, or a shaded blue line.
Furthermore, although the FAA AIM states that Class E airspace begins at 14,500 feet MSL unless noted otherwise, in most areas in the U.S. today this airspace starts at 1,200 feet AGL. In fact, that is exactly what the FAA’s Aeronautical Chart User’s Guide claims.
There are still some areas where Class E airspace does extend upward from 14,500 feet MSL, but they are few and far between, mostly in parts of the Western U.S. where the amount of air traffic is notably lower.
For an example, check out the area just East of Springerville Muni (KJTC). Inside the area marked by a shaded blue line is class G (uncontrolled) airspace extending upwards to 14,499 feet MSL. Outside that area, class E begins at 1,200 feet AGL.
What equipment do I need to fly in Class E Airspace?
Generally speaking, if you fly in Class E airspace anywhere in the Contiguous U.S. below 10,000 feet, no specific equipment is required.
Aircraft operating in Class E airspace above 10,000 feet are required to have an ADS-B out transmitter onboard. The same applies to a coastal U.S. zone over the Gulf of Mexico (specifics defined in AIM 3-2-6).
What are the Weather Minimums for Flying in Class E Airspace?
The basic VFR weather minimums for operating in Class E airspace depend on the altitude of your flight. Much like with the equipment requirements, the cutoff for the weather minimums is set at 10,000 feet MSL.
Below 10,000 MSL, the weather minimums are the same as for most other airspace types (I use the “3-152” mnemonic to remember it). Above 10,000 feet, where aircraft travel at higher airspeeds, the minimums are slightly extended. The table below shows Class E airspace minimums.
Class E Airspace
Distance Above Clouds
Distance Below Clouds
Horizontal Distance From Clouds
Below 10,000 ft MSL
3 statute miles
Above 10,000 ft MSL
5 statute miles
1 statute mile
What functions does Class E airspace serve?
To better understand the difference in how Class E airspace is marked, let’s discuss why it exists. The important fact is that Class E airspace provides traffic separation for IFR flights. This explains the weather minima, the varying airspace floor altitudes, and the varying shapes.
Class E Airspace Covering Surface Area at Non-towered Airports
For airports where a tower is not present, Class E may begin at the surface, allowing for adequate communications service and traffic separation for arriving and departing IFR flights. The weather minimums at Class E surface areas ensure that VFR aircraft get enough time to see and avoid IFR traffic.
Some towered (e.g., Class D) airports that get little traffic outside of peak hours may set part-time tower operations. When a tower is not active (e.g., at night), the airspace of that airport may become Class E for the given time period.
The specifics of this operation will be indicated in the Chart Supplement for each airport at which this type of configuration exists.
Also of note is that, in order to be certified for surface Class E airspace, an airport has to meet two conditions. Such an airport must have facilities for observation and reporting of weather, and communication with aircraft must be able to be maintained all the way to the surface.
When looking at the sectional chart, a Class E surface area will be marked with a dashed magenta line. Most commonly, the surface area will have the shape of a circle. See Hattiesburg/Laurel Regional Airport below for an example.
Class E Airspace Serving as an Extension to a Surface Area of Another Class
Airports that have instrument approaches for their runway(-s) may choose to extend the airspace several miles out from their runways. This Class E airspace will extend laterally and also begin at the surface, helping with visual separation between VFR aircraft and IFR flights on the final approach.
If a towered airport’s airspace becomes Class E airspace (e.g., part-time tower operations), then the extensions remain Class E. If the airspace becomes Class G, the extensions also become Class G airspace.
On the sectional chart, Class E extensions to a surface area are shown as dashed magenta shapes (likely rectangles), extruding several miles out from the airport. As an example, Garden City airport has a Class D airspace surrounding it (dashed blue line) with two Class E extensions on each side.
Transitional Class E Airspace
Similarly, transitional Class E airspace will surround some airports with instrument approaches to provide additional control for IFR Traffic. This airspace will start above the surface (typically at 700 feet) and is likely to be surrounding an area that extends from the runway with an instrument approach.
The example below shows two airports surrounded by a Class E airspace transition area. The area within the shaded magenta line is Class E airspace beginning at 700 feet.
Due to the close proximity of the airports, such a transition area allows air traffic controllers to coordinate IFR traffic using instrument approaches at both airports.
Note that if the shaded line was blue, this would indicate a Class E transition area starting at 1200 feet AGL. This marking is less common nowadays as in most areas, Class E already starts at 1,200 feet AGL.
Federal and Low-level RNAV airways are all considered Class E airspace from 1,200 feet to 17,999 feet. The basic width of an airway is 4 nautical miles on each side, hence Class E designated for airways represents a corridor 8 miles in width.
The light blue line in the figure below represents a federal airway between two radio beacons. Note that the 8nm-wide corridor for airway Class E airspace is not shown on the sectional map as it would create more complexity.
En Route Domestic Areas
In areas where air traffic control needs more flexibility, the FAA sometimes will designate an en-route domestic area with Class E airspace that starts at some altitude below 14,500 ft MSL. Class E en route domestic areas give the ATC opportunity to reroute IFR traffic while maintaining control.
Note that the en-route domestic areas are not indicated on the sectional chart. However, a full list of all designated areas can be found in section 6006 of the FAA Order JO 7400.*** - Airspace Designations and Reporting Points (which is updated regularly).
Offshore Airspace Areas
Where ATC requires more control over IFR traffic off the U.S. coast, the FAA designates Class E for offshore areas. This airspace will begin at a specified altitude and extend upwards to 17,999 feet MSL.
For example, the jagged blue line on the figure below separates the Atlantic Low Control Area and South Florida Low Control Area. Both areas represent Class E airspace beginning at 5,500 feet MSL and 2,700 feet MSL, respectively, and extending upwards to 17,999 feet MSL.
What Are the Eight Types of Class E Airspace?
Besides giving it a letter designation, the FAA further divides Class E airspace into eight different types. The airspace is divided based on its functions. The types of Class E airspace are as follows:
- E1 - Class E airspace starting from 14,500 feet MSL
- E2 - Class E airspace designated as a surface area for an airport
- E3 - Class E airspace designated as an extension to a Class C surface area
- E4 – Class E airspace designated as an extension to a Class D or a Class E surface area
- E5 – Class E airspace with the floor at 700 feet AGL or above
- E6 – Class E designated for en route domestic airspace areas
- E7 – Class E designated for offshore airspace areas
- E8 – Class E airspace designated as a federal airway
About THE AUTHOR
After spending years watching every video I could find about flying, I finally scratched the itch and got my pilots license. Now I fly every chance I get, and share the information I learn, here.Read More About Joe Haygood