Class E Airspace for Drone Pilots, Explained
Note: This article does not provide legal advice. Please consult an attorney to verify the accuracy of the information contained herein.
Introduction to Class E Airspace
Class E is the most common airspace in the United States, the most difficult to understand, and the most import to get right when determining where you can operate a drone. The toughest part in understanding Class E is the various types of Class E airspace – there is not just Class E. The following article will break it down for you.
Class E airspace is the controlled airspace not classified as Class A, B, C, or D airspace. In most areas, the Class E airspace base is 1,200 feet above ground level (AGL). In other areas, it is either the surface or 700 feet AGL. Finally, in some cases Class E begins at an MSL altitude indicated on the charts, instead of AGL altitude. Generally, Class E airspace extends from its floor up to, but not including, 18,000 feet MSL which is the lower limit of Class A airspace. To wrap it up, all airspace above FL 600 is Class E airspace.
The blue lines on a sectional chart are Federal Airways. These are usually found within Class E airspace. These airways stat at 1,200 feet AGL and extend up to, but not including, 18,000 feet MSL.
Class E Transition Areas
Think of transition areas as the upside-down wedding cake of Class B and C, which is there to protect aircraft on approach or departure from an airport. The thick, magenta vignette (or gradient) depicts a transition space where the darker outside of the shape means 1,200 feet AGL while the lighter inside of the shape means 700 feet AGL. This makes sense since an aircraft departing an airport will climb higher in altitude out and away from the airport and so the airspace floor can increase in the transition.
The shape of E transitions is not always circular but can be quite jagged as the airspace is configured for local terrain.
Class E Arrival Extensions
Airport extensions are there to protect approaches and departures to and from airport runways, therefore they closely follow the direction of runways.
The North Bend airport shown below has both Class D (blue-dash) and Class E (magenta-dash) extensions. In both cases, the airspace begins at surface level.
Now we have the third variation of Class E. Previously we looked at the magenta vignette, which begins at 700 feet AGL or 1,200 feet AGL. A magenta-dash means the airspace floor is at the surface.
For the scope and depth of the Part 107 exam we don’t need to know more about Class E Surface than that. A magenta-dash means it is Class E from the surface on up and that requires ATC authorization for drone operations.
In real-world use, however, it gets complicated.
The North Bend example has Class E airspace to the west and east of the airport, yet those actually do not require ATC authorization. That is due to the different types of Class E surface.
Class E Surface Types
There are three different types of Class E surface that drone pilots are interested in:
Type E4 – Extension to Class D or E surface area
Type E3 – Extension to a Class C surface area
Type E2 – Surface area designated for an airport – AUTHORIZATION NEEDED
Only Type E2 requires authorization. E3 and E4 can be operated in without ATC authorization.
North Bend has type E4 airspace to the west and east. We know this because the blue-dashed Class D line segregates the adjoining Class E.
Now take a look at Clinton Muni airport below. The entire airspace is Class E2, with no other dashed-lines segregating the inner circle from extensions.
Very important… notice the dashed lines look different than Class E surface shown above at North Bend. That’s because the North Bend chart is from a VFR chart which doesn’t offer the precision detail to distinguish different Class E types. The bottom chart with more detail can be found at faa.maps.arcgis.com.
How to Fly Your Drone in Class E Airspace
In most cases, a remote pilot will not need ATC authorization to operate in Class E airspace. However, since Class E covers so much airspace there are cases in which authorization is needed. The floor of Class E is usually 700 or 1,200 feet AGL, which is far above the 400 foot altitude limit for drone operations. The only exception (Part 107 pilots only) would be when flying over and within a 400 feet radius of a man-made structure such as a radio tower. In that case the drone could operate up to, but not within, Class E airspace without authorization.
Prep for the Part 107 Exam
Refer to the Sectional Aeronautical Chart found in the Chart Supplement FAA-CT-8080-2H. During the exam you can refer to this chart to remind you of how to identify Class E.
Need More Information?
If you still have questions on airspace check out our Part 107 courses and get certified as a commercial drone pilot.