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Class E airspace is considered controlled airspace, although it is slightly different than most other airspaces. The short answer to whether a drone can be flown in this airspace is it depends.
Class E can be one of the most confusing airspaces since it has multiple classes and designations which change the requirements of authorization.
Class E airspace does not prohibit drone flight to anyone, but some circumstances require prior authorization. Class E4 and E3 airspaces do not require prior authorization, but Class E surface area (E2) airspace surrounds small airports and does require airspace authorization.
Classifications of Class E airspace #
There are three types of Class E airspace: E4, E3, and E2. The former two do not require authorization and are extensions of other classes, but E2 is what is known as Class E surface area, and this is the classification that requires air traffic control (ATC) authorization.
E4 is an extension of Class D and Class E surface area, whereas E3 is an extension of Class C surface area.
Surface area is another important term and is used when a class reaches the surface due to a nearby airport. The airspace will surround the airport, and the size of the airport determines which class covers it.
Class E airspace covers small airports and is designated by the E2 class. This is the only Class E airspace that requires approval because it is the only one that reaches the surface because of the airport.
Both E4 and E3 classes begin at 700 ft (typically beginning where Class D ends), which means there is no authorization required because it is too high for pilots to legally fly.
Class E airspace generally spans from 700’ to 18,000’ MSL, while it can sometimes reach the surface. Other times it begins at 1,200’ MSL.
MSL and AGL are two important terms to understand because they will always accompany an altitude. MSL signifies mean sea level, and AGL is above ground level. Both explain elevation or altitude, but they are based on different measurements.
Class E airspace is not the most uncommon airspace, but it is not often understood by drone pilots because most of it is above the legal maximum altitude of 400’.
For this reason, there will often be no distinction between the three parts of Class E airspace. The airports that contain Class E surface airspace are controlled, which means there needs to be authorization to fly within close proximity to them.
Getting authorization #
Being authorized to fly in this airspace is done the same way as other controlled airspaces, and it is simple.
The biggest thing to remember when applying for airspace authorization is to apply as early as possible within a 90-day window of your expected flight. The FAA has made authorization an easy process, but that does not mean it will be quick.
The best way to begin getting authorization is through the Low-Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability or LAANC. This company partners with not only the FAA but also with private companies such as DJI to make the process of applying for authorization easier.
This is the best way to start because the main purpose of this method is efficiency. In most cases, a pilot can apply for and receive authorization for a planned flight on the same day.
When applying for authorization using LAANC, be sure to know what airspace you are in prior to requesting because it may change the amount of time necessary to determine authorization.
LAANC with Aloft #
Aloft is an app that can be downloaded on Apple and Android devices. This app allows pilots to plan for a flight and request permission through LAANC in an efficient manner. It has been rated as the #1 app to use when applying for authorizations and planning for flights.
» MORE: How to apply for Airspace authorization with Aloft
If LAANC approval does not work for one reason or another, the FAA offers a form to accomplish the same thing through the government entity.
This method typically takes longer, but in cases where LAANC does not work or in heavily restricted airspace, it may be the best option.
As for Class E airspace, LAANC should not pose too many problems when attempting to gain authorization.
Understanding airspace #
One of the most overlooked yet crucial principles in piloting a UAS is understanding airspace. Knowing the difference between controlled and uncontrolled airspace and knowing when authorization is required for a particular area is essential.
There are seven general classifications of controlled airspace (not including warning zones and no-fly zones), and most of them apply directly to drones.
Any kind of airspace that spans between the surface and 400 ft should be known by every drone pilot, whether recreational or commercial.
Only commercial pilots must obtain a Part 107 license which requires knowledge of airspaces.
However, in 2021 the FAA began requiring recreational pilots to take a similar exam called the TRUST exam before flying any drone larger than half a pound. This test is not as rigorous as the commercial license, but basic knowledge of airspaces is tested.
This knowledge is simple enough to understand after studying it, but how do you know where each zone starts and ends?
If you are flying with a DJI drone, chances are you have experienced a geofence before. A geofence is a barrier created by the software in the drone to stop it from entering certain areas. These areas include, but are not limited to, controlled airspaces ranging from B to F.
Using DJI drones, the process is simple to know where you can and can’t fly, but not everyone uses DJI. Other drones do not have the same type of geofencing and therefore need another way.
I mentioned above that you can get LAANC approval through an app called Aloft. This app not only helps gain access to restricted zones but also details where they are.
Other apps that do this are B4UFly and UAV forecast. These apps can be downloaded and used to verify any location a pilot desires to fly. Be sure to always check before taking off in case there is an area you didn’t know about or in case there is a temporary flight restriction in the area.
The reason for the implementation of the TRUST test and other regulations by the FAA is safety. Class E airspace is more confusing than most, but there are parts of it that are important for drone pilots.
Manned aircraft always have the right of way, and therefore ATC needs to be informed when there is a chance a UAS and a manned aircraft could be close enough for a collision.
It may seem like a lot sometimes. However, if a pilot can avoid harming others, it may be in their best interest to abide by these rules and apply for authorization whenever necessary.