A huge change has quietly occurred in US airspace that is commonly misunderstood. There is almost no “Class G airspace” in the US above 1200 agl! Unfortunately, most applicants on flight tests (and many CFIs) still fail to grasp this concept and its importance for safety. G to E airspace is often where VFR and IFR mix it up, so knowing these boundaries is essential.
Many CFIs still dutifully teach “Class G to 14,500” and often confuse students with the historic “blue vignette.” Applicants (and pilots on flight reviews) then point out “Class G to 14.5” just west of Manhattan 😳🤮. There are huge safety consequences to this ignorance – VFR/IFR mix in E/G. The correct understanding is critical to the safety of all pilots at every certificate level (even IFR).
The reason Class G to 14,500 is now the very rare exception is due to recent “GPS direct” IFR routing. There now is IFR traffic just about everywhere above 1200 agl. (not just on historic airways) so G only goes up to 1200 agl. The only blue vignette I could find on VFR charts is now in remote Alaska. Class G above 1200 agl is basically gone! IFR traffic is now approved GPS-direct just about everywhere above 1200agl (in the Echo) all over the Continental US.
When Orville and Wilbur went flying, all airspace was “Class G”- “Go for it!?” There was no IFR traffic and no “controlled” airspace. Later, when we flew surface-based airways IFR on airways, the FAA protected those IFR corridors with a cyan vignette (Echo Airspace) assuring VFR/IFR separation. Between airways was “Golf Airspace” up to 14,500. But now with “GPS-direct IFR” (everywhere), these corridors are part of history (like those concrete airway marker arrows). I teach airspace in this manner – meaningfully and “historically,” starting with the surface and then proceeding upward to positive control Alpha and Bravo (rather than “alphabetically” starting at 18K). After all, most pilots fly in Echo and Golf and this is where these misunderstandings can create serious safety conflicts between VFR and IFR.
The FAA defines “Golf airspace” as everywhere in the US (usually at the surface) that has not been otherwise designated. This is airspace that is “left over,” and consequently not controlled by the FAA.
FAR AIM: 3–3–1 ”General: Class G airspace (uncontrolled) is that portion of airspace that has not been designated as Class A, Class B, Class C, Class D, or Class E airspace.”
So the great mystery on most flight tests (struggle, sweat, moan) is where Class G becomes “controlled” or becomes “Class E.” This is a critically important question for both VFR and IFR pilots since this is where GA surface operations – potentially 1 statute mile viz/clear of clouds – mix with IFR “controlled cloud flying.” The whole Echo/Golf airspace system is designed to keep VFR and IFR airplanes from swapping paint (read on for why this often no longer works).
As a result of this Echo/Golf airspace confusion, Echo transitions and surface areas are also commonly misunderstood by many pilots (and even CFIs). These critical corridors protect IFR traffic descending to the surface (where the “rubber meets the road). In an Echo surface area (magenta dashed) under IFR conditions, descending IFR traffic is protected with a requirement for 3 statute miles and the 1-5-2 cloud clearance (often violated by ignorant VFR pilots). Hypothetically, in IFR conditions, there should not be a 7AC Champ doing touch-and-goes at your destination airport. These E/G rules need to be understood (and complied with) by pilots at all levels for flight safety. But most every IFR pilot has popped out of the clouds to meet a local VFR pilot in the pattern with some scary low weather (and usually also not broadcasting ADS-B🤮). My personal favorite was descending IFR to find a glider parked on the runway…no landing!
Echo Surface areas
These dotted magenta circles (resembling a Delta in shape and sometimes confused) provide IFR protection all the way to the runway. These were *historically* designated where an ILS descended to the surface and often had surface extensions to a ground-based navaid. Unfortunately, with the advent of LPV approaches most everywhere, IFR traffic now often descends below the magenta vignette (out of 700 agl Echo) to the surface in class G (uncontrolled) airspace. Local traffic is perfectly legal to be flying 1sm/clear of clouds while IFR operations arealso legally descending in the clouds. *No* VFR/IFR separation is provided here!
Echo Surface Extensions IN IFR
Another misunderstood (and frequently violated) airspace is the surface extensions on a class Delta Airspace that is operating in IFR conditions. Many pilots seem to think avoiding an “IFR Delta” is enough to be safe (and legal). But when an operating Delta goes IFR, the associated Echo extensions are also considered IFR. Uncontrolled VFR traffic should not be roaming around in these surface areas if the associated Delta is IFR. (Special VFR please?)
Quiz Time: The magenta vignette clearly indicates Golf Airspace surface up to 700 agl (and Echo above). Where does Echo start above the indicated box? Click the picture for quiz 🙏
Hopefully, this short overview provided some clarity on the Echo/Golf situation, and why understanding this is critical for safety (and your comments are welcome!) It’s a brave new world out there with all the new IFR capabilities. Though this airspace change reduces the amount of “uncontrolled airspace” it also enables more “IFR direct” capability for efficiency. Fly safe out there (and often)!
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