drone airport

Navigating Airspace Classifications

Before you head out to shoot some amazing photos and videos with your drone, you need to determine whether it is legal to do so in the location you have in mind.  Airspace classifications tell you where and when you can fly your drone and what, if any, permissions you will need to obtain prior to flight. These classifications will also tell you if there are particular activities you should be aware of to ensure safe flying.

Airspace types can be broadly divided into two basic categories: regulatory and non-regulatory. Regulatory refers to, naturally, areas where FAA regulations are in place. Non-regulatory areas are those in which both legal and practical reasons prevent the FAA from exercising authority.

Regulatory Non-regulatory
Restricted Areas Military Operations Areas (MOA)
Prohibited Areas Warning Areas
Class A Alert Areas
Class B Controlled Firing Areas (CFA)
Class C
Class D
Class E

Regulatory Airspace

Controlled Airspace

The airspace type that is likely of most concern to UAV pilots is controlled airspace. Controlled airspace is three dimensional and can be broken down into distinct classes. By understanding the airspace classification in which you plan to fly, you will know whether you must first receive approval from Air Traffic Control (ATC) prior to flight.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) adopted classifications spanning from A to G in 1990. The FAA is one of many international agencies that recognizes classes A, B, C, D, E, and G, but does not recognize class F airspace.


Class ATC Required
Class B Yes
Class C Yes
Class D Yes
Class E No
Class G No

Airspace designations can occasionally overlap, so it is important to remember that the order of designations relates to how restrictive the class is (A is the most restrictive; G is the least restrictive). It is important to note that the FAA doesn’t provide broad, hard and fast definitions of what constitutes a particular airspace classification; instead, the FAA qualifies these descriptions as “generally” applicable. For UAS pilots, it is critical to know the classification in which you plan to fly and whether Air Traffic Control approval will be necessary. Clearing this up in advance will help ensure public safety and protect you against severe fines and penalties from the FAA.



Upside Down Wedding Cake Chart

The FAA’s notorious “Upside Down Wedding Cake” Chart


Class A

The FAA defines the upper limit at which you may fly your UAV at 400’ above ground level (AGL) so, needless to say, you may not fly your drone in Class A airspace.

Generally, that airspace from 18,000 feet MSL up to and including FL 600, including the airspace overlying the waters within 12 nautical miles off the coast of the 48 contiguous States and Alaska; and designated international airspace beyond 12 nautical miles off the coast of the 48 contiguous States and Alaska within areas of domestic radio navigational signal or ATC radar coverage, and within which domestic procedures are applied.

Class B

Class B airspace is generally airspace from the surface to 10,000 feet mean sea level (MSL) surrounding the nation’s busiest airports in terms of airport operations or passenger enplanements. The configuration of each Class B airspace area is individually tailored, consists of a surface area and two or more layers (some Class B airspace areas resemble upside-down wedding cakes), and is designed to contain all published instrument procedures once an aircraft enters the airspace. A remote pilot must receive authorization from ATC before operating in the Class B airspace.

Unless otherwise authorized by ATC, aircraft must be equipped with an operable two-way radio capable of communicating with ATC on appropriate frequencies for that Class B airspace.

Class C

Class C airspace is generally airspace from the surface to 4,000 feet above the airport elevation (charted in MSL) surrounding those airports that have an operational control tower, are serviced by a radar approach control, and have a certain number of instrument flight rules (IFR) operations or passenger enplanements. Although the configuration of each Class C area is individually tailored, the airspace usually consists of a surface area with a five nautical mile (NM) radius, an outer circle with a ten NM radius that extends from 1,200 feet to 4,000 feet above the airport elevation. A remote pilot must receive authorization before operating in Class C airspace.

Class D

Class D airspace is generally airspace from the surface to 2,500 feet above the airport elevation (charted in MSL) surrounding those airports that have an operational control tower. The configuration of each Class D airspace area is individually tailored and, when instrument procedures are published, the airspace is normally designed to contain the procedures. Arrival extensions for instrument approach procedures (IAPs) may be Class D or Class E airspace. A remote pilot must receive ATC authorization before operating in Class D airspace.

Class E

Class E airspace is the controlled airspace not classified as Class A, B, C, or D airspace. A large amount of the airspace over the United States is designated as Class E airspace. This provides sufficient airspace for the safe control and separation of aircraft during IFR operations.

Sectional and other charts depict all locations of Class E airspace with bases below 14,500 feet MSL. In areas where charts do not depict a class E base, class E begins at 14,500 feet MSL. In most areas, the Class E airspace base is 1,200 feet above ground level (AGL). In many other areas, the Class E airspace base is either the surface or 700 feet AGL. Some Class E airspace begins at an MSL altitude depicted on the charts, instead of an AGL altitude. Class E airspace typically extends up to, but not including, 18,000 feet MSL (the lower limit of Class A airspace). All airspace above FL 600 is Class E airspace.

Federal Airways, which are shown as blue lines on a sectional chart, are usually found within Class E airspace. Federal Airways start at 1,200’ AGL and go up to, but, not including 18,000’ MSL.

In most cases, a remote pilot will not need ATC authorization to operate in Class E airspace.

Uncontrolled Airspace

Class F

Class F airspace is designated as “uncontrolled”, and can be seen as a hybrid between Class E and Class G. Pilots can be advised of ATC clearances, but are not required to comply.  Class F airspace is not tested on the FAA Aeronautical Knowledge Exam.
Uncontrolled airspace or Class G airspace is the portion of the airspace that has not been designated as Class A, B, C, D, or E. It is therefore designated uncontrolled airspace. Class G airspace extends from the surface to the base of the overlying Class E airspace. A remote pilot will not need ATC authorization to operate in Class G airspace.Class G

Other Airspace Classifications

Special Use Airspace

  • Prohibited areas
  • Restricted areas
  • Warning areas
  • Military operation areas (MOAs)
  • Alert areas
  • Controlled firing areas (CFAs)

Other Areas

  • Local airport advisory (LAA)
  • Military training route (MTR)
  • Temporary flight restriction (TFR)
  • Parachute jump aircraft operations
  • Published VFR routes
  • Terminal radar service area (TRSA)
  • National security area (NSA)
  • Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZ) land and water based and need for Defense VFR (DVFR) flight plan to operate VFR in this airspace
  • Flight Restricted Zones (FRZ) in vicinity of Capitol and White House
  • Wildlife Areas/Wilderness Areas/National Parks and request to operate above 2,000 AGL
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Areas off the coast with requirement to operate above 2,000 AGL
  • Tethered Balloons for observation and weather recordings that extend on cables up to 60,000

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About the Author

Adam Shore

Adam is a Central Florida alum who recently left the Orlando area to relocate to Denver, where he enjoys shooting aerial photography of the Rocky Mountains. And to ski. He is a member of the AMA and was been a drone photographer since the early days of the industry. Follow him @dronegenuity.