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What You Need To Know About Class C Airspace

Airlines, student pilots, corporate jets, and weekend fliers all share Class C Airspace. While you may not need a "clearance" to enter it, there are a few things you should know...

Why Class C Exists

Class C airspace covers busy airports, which usually have a mix of airline and general aviation traffic. Class C airspace is considerably smaller than Class B airspace, and Air Traffic Control does not provide the same level of separation service as you would find in Class B airspace. However, you still talk to ATC while inside Class C airspace, and your Mode-C transponder (which is required) provides them your altitude information.

Controlled airspace is largely dedicated to protecting IFR aircraft from traffic conflicts, and that's no exception inside Class C. With a large volume of instrument traffic arriving and departing Class C, it can be thought of as the second most restrictive form of airspace found around an airport. Class C airspace is found at mid-size airports like Daytona, FL (KDAB), Richmond, VA (KRIC), and Burbank, CA (KBUR).

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Class C Weather Minimums

Class C minimum weather requirements exist so that you can see and avoid other aircraft. Since Class C is busy airspace, ATC wants you to stay far enough away from the clouds so you can see and avoid other airplanes, especially jets flying fast approaches.

An easy way to remember VFR weather minimums for Class C airspace is the phrase "3 Cessna 152s". Each number in the phrase stands for one of the distances:

  • 3SM visibility
  • 1000' above
  • 500' below
  • 2000' horizontal

Radio Procedures And Required Equipment

You'll need a two-way radio and Mode-C transponder onboard your airplane to enter Class C airspace, so that you can maintain communication with ATC and so that they can track your location and altitude on their radar scope. While you don't need an operable transponder to fly below a Class C shelf, you will need one to fly above Class C airspace. As you approach a Class C airport, you'll contact that airspace's approach control. Call ATC on the radio before you're in Class C airspace and make sure to tell them:

  • Your position
  • Altitude
  • Current transponder code
  • Destination
  • Request Class C service
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But what allows you to enter the airspace? Once you hear your callsign, you can enter the Class C airspace. Keep these important facts in mind:

  • If the controller responds with "(Aircraft callsign) standby", you have established two-way radio communication, and you can enter Class C airspace.
  • If you don't hear your callsign, you CAN NOT enter the airspace.
  • If the controller is busy, they can ask you to stay out of the Class C airspace until they are ready.
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What's With The Shape?

The upside-down wedding cake shape allows arriving and departing aircraft to remain in the Class C airspace, and safely separated from other aircraft. At the same time, lower, slower airplanes can continue operating at smaller airports outside (but near) Class C airspace, and still remain outside the airspace.

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The inner ring of Class C airspace typically extends from the surface to 4,000' above the airport, and has a radius of 5NM. The outer ring of Class C airspace typically extends from 1,200' above the airport to 4,000' above the airport, and has a radius of 10NM.

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Vertical boundaries of Class C airspace are made up of two sets of bold magenta numbers, separated by a magenta horizontal line.

  • The top number represents the ceiling of Class C airspace in hundreds of feet MSL. If the number is "40," it means the ceiling of Class C airspace is 4,000' MSL.
  • The bottom number represents the floor of Class C airspace in hundreds of feet MSL. If the number is "12," it means the floor of Class C airspace is 1,200' MSL.
  • When a layer of Class C airspace extends to the surface, the bottom altitude number is replaced with the letters "SFC", for "surface."
  • Altitudes for Class C airspace are inclusive, meaning if you fly at the altitude marked on the map, you are in Class C airspace.

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Not all Class C airspace is in the shape of a perfect circle, however. Take Asheville, North Carolina (KAVL), for instance. Situated in a valley and surrounded by mountains over 2,000 feet above field elevation, Asheville's airspace is an oblong shape. Two reasons for this include limited radar coverage due to terrain, in addition to the established instrument approach corridors.

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Don't Fly Without A Plan

While you shouldn't feel nervous about flying into Class C airspace, you should always have a plan and think ahead of the airplane. Brief everything, whether you're entering the traffic pattern, taking off, landing, or even taxiing. Between busy radios, unfamiliar airports, and plenty of traffic, you might find yourself getting busy fast. Handling situations is infinitely easier once you have a plan in place, rather than making something up on the fly. Never forget to ask for ATC assistance if you get confused; they're there for a reason.

Swayne Martin

Easy enough, right? Class C is usually a mix between general aviation and airline traffic. Make sure to listen out for your callsign before flying into Class C airspace, and always remember to ask for help if you're confused.

Want to learn more about airspace? Check out our online course here.

What's your favorite Class C airport to fly into? Tell us in the comments below.

Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, certified flight instructor, and commercial pilot for Mokulele Airlines. He holds multi-engine and instrument ratings, and is an aviation student at the University of North Dakota. He's the author of the articles, quizzes and lists you love to read every week. You can reach Swayne at swayne@boldmethod.com, and follow his flying adventures at http://www.swaynemartin.com.

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