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AOPA - Airspace

AOPA - Airspace

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Published by Edward Rehr

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Published by: Edward Rehr on Jul 19, 2008
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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In this Safety Advisor, we will examine the airspacestructure and how pilots are expected (and requiredby the Federal Aviation Regulations) to operate with-in it.Throughout this Safety Advisor, we will be talkingabout VFR and IFR operations within different class-es of airspace. VFR pilots need to know more aboutairspace than IFR pilots, because most airspace wasdesigned to separate VFR and IFR operations. Thesimple act of being on an IFR flight plan means thata clearance through controlled airspace has alreadybeen granted. Of course, pilots who are studying forFAA knowledge or practical tests will need to knoweverything — so bone up.Distilled to the basics, there are two kinds of air-space: uncontrolled and controlled.
Uncontrolled Airspace
In the early days of aviation, all airspace was uncon-trolled, what we today call Class G airspace. Wayback when, there were few airplanes, and none hadthe instruments necessary to fly in clouds. Even atthe busiest of airports, traffic density was very low,and the airplanes flew slowly. Although there wereno standards for weather conditions that aircraftcould fly in, it was generally agreed that if youremained clear of clouds and had at least one-milevisibility, you could see other airplanes and terrain intime to avoid a collision. This was called see andavoid. It formed the basis for VFR flight and remainscritical to preventing collisions.As the aviation population gained experience flyingin marginal weather, pilots learned that becausevision faded at night and at altitude, better weatherconditions were necessary to see and avoid other
For Everyone
Regulations No. 1
The airspaceabove the UnitedStates can seemas complex andconvoluted as asoap opera plot.With a little study,however, it doesmake sense.The airspaceabove the UnitedStates can seemas complex andconvoluted as asoap opera plot.With a little study,however, it doesmake sense.
AOPA Air Safety Foundation - Safe Pilots. Safe Skies.
Figure 1. Victor Airway
Contrary to what many pilots believe, controlled air-space does not mean that all flight within it is controlled.It means that IFR services are available to qualified pilotswho choose to use them. Pilots operating under VFRmay fly freely in controlled airspace as long as weatherconditions meet current regulatory requirements for thatairspace.
Begin the Approaches
Airport-based radio navigation facilities made instrumentapproaches possible, greatly improving the utility of air-craft, while also creating some traffic-separation chal-lenges. Close encounters between IFR airplanes onapproach to airports and VFR airplanes flying under theweather led to the creation of transition areas.Transition areas surrounded airports with instrumentapproaches and brought Class E airspace to within 700feet of the surface. This move was intended to protectapproaching IFR pilots. Pilots flying under VFR couldoperate in the transition areas as long as they had VFRweather minimums (Figure 2 on the next page showsthe magenta tint used to depict transition areas).
Safe Pilots. Safe Skies. •
Pg. 2
traffic. This is the reason why higher weather minimumsexist at night and at altitude.Minimum cloud clearance limits and flight visibilitiesworked well for a time, but the aviation industry wasbooming, and things were about to change.Except when flying in clouds, the pilot in command isresponsible at all times for aircraft separation, evenwhen operating in a radar environment or on an IFRflight plan.Many pilots do not know that IFR flight without aclearence is permitted in uncontrolledairspace,provided that the pilot is instrument-rated and theaircraft is equipped for instrument flight.
Controlled AirspaceThe Beginning
With the advent of inexpensive gyroscopic flight instru-ments, travel through the clouds became possible. Seeand avoid was useless in the soup, so procedures toensure aircraft separation were needed. This led to thecreation of air traffic control (ATC) and controlled, orClass E, airspace. The government established a systemof airways, each eight-nautical miles wide with basealtitudes of 1,200 feet above ground level (agl), and des-ignated the airspace within them as controlled airspace.The airway system was defined by a network of radiobeacons, many of which were located on airports.More stringent weather minimums for VFR operationswere established for this controlled airspace to furtherseparate air traffic. In poor weather conditions, pilotsand aircraft had to be qualified and equipped for IFRflight, file IFR flight plans, and coordinate their positionswith ATC. When weather conditions were good, pilotscould still fly on IFR flight plans, if they chose, but wereresponsible to see and avoid other aircraft.Some parcels of airspace contained many airways, so inthose areas, controlled airspace was established at 1,200feet agl to coincide with the airways, whether on an air-way or not. When VOR airways arrived in the 1950s,they were (and still are) known as “Victor” airways.Figure 1 shows how the airspace looked in those days.
Figure 3. Surface-Based Class EFigure 2. Transition Area
At first, the only approaches were of the nonprecisionvariety. That is, they provided no vertical guidance.Pilots would fly to or from a navaid and, at the appropri-ate distance or time, would descend to predeterminedaltitudes. Depending upon the speed of the airplaneand the height of obstacles surrounding the airport, anonprecision approach might or might not be sufficientto get below the clouds and onto the runway.Most approaches in the United States are nonprecision.New nonprecision Global Positioning System (GPS)approaches are being added.To help pave the way for all-weather utility, the instru-ment landing system (ILS) was invented, providingvertical guidance in the form of an electronic glideslope.It remains the predominant precision approach systemtoday.The ILS systems brought airplanes to within 200 feet of the ground, and that caused some problems with VFRflight around airports with precision approaches. Thesolution was to bring Class E, or controlled airspace, tothe surface and to raise the weather minimums so thatVFR traffic would not get in the way of IFR traffic duringpoor weather.
Safe Pilots. Safe Skies. •
Pg. 3
VFR minimums for surface-based Class E airspace are: a1,000-foot ceiling and 3-statute miles visibility. Whenthe weather is at least that good, VFR and IFR traffic canlegally mix within surface-based Class E (see Figure 3).Currently, Wide-Area Augmentation System (WAAS)approaches are being established. These even moreaccurate GPS-based approaches can provide ILS-likeminimums, but they fall into a new classification of approaches called “approach with vertical guidance”(APV).A weather observer or automated weather observationequipment (ASOS or AWOS) must be available at air-ports surrounded by surface-based Class E. If weatherinformation is not available, the airspace reverts to ClassG with a Class E transition area, as shown in Figure 3.
View From the Tower
As traffic increased at major airports, the need for con-trol towers became apparent. Controllers in the towerwere — and still are — responsible for sequencing arriv-ing and departing airborne traffic and keeping order onthe ground. Class D airspace was established around

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