Class B Basics: The ABCs of Class B Airspace

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

The regs allow private pilots and even student pilots under certain circumstances to operate at major airline hubs alongside the heavy iron. But before doing so, you'd be well advised to bone up on the requirements, procedures, and fees. Flight Training magazine's Robert N. Rossier offers a primer for the Class B first-timer.

TrainingUsing mnemonics is an effective way to learn airspace classifications, and nothing suits Class B airspace better than the letter B. Class B airspace surrounds "Big" airports in a shape that looks like a big upside down wedding cake. Class B airspace isn't reserved only for big airplanes, however. Flying to and from a Class B airport or transitioning through Class B airspace in a small airplane is permissible, may be necessary depending on the mission, and can even be fun. Pilots just need to beware of the procedures, pilot and aircraft requirements, and potential hazards that await them both in the air and on the ground.

To B Or Not To B

Big airportThe mere fact that Class B airspace is big is a good reason to learn how to fly in it. If Class B airspace separates your point of departure and destination, you have three choices - fly around it, over or under it if possible, or through it. The last option may be the most desirable choice to save time and avoid flying uncomfortably high or low.

The letter B also reminds pilots that this airspace has big bucks, busy airspace, and jet blast, things that can discourage landing at a Class B airport or flying through the airspace. And there's a cost issue. Virtually all Class B airports charge landing and other fees.

Class B airspace may also be crowded, and to mix large and small aircraft safely requires pilots and air traffic controllers to exercise extra diligence. Wake turbulence is a likely factor, and on the ground, jet blast is a potential hazard. Finally, if you don't meet the pilot certification and aircraft equipment requirements, flying into Class B airspace will put you afoul of the federal aviation regulations.

Still, there are plenty of good reasons to visit a Class B airport. Perhaps you need to pick up or drop off friends or business associates so they can connect with commercial flights. Always associated with large cities, Class B airports often are convenient to numerous attractions and amenities.

Taxiing Is Often the Hardest Part

jfkrwy.gif (17266 bytes)

Let's say you've just landed on JFK's runway 13L. As you clear the runway and switch to ground control when instructed, the controller rattles off your taxi clearance: "Zulu-Alpha-Bravo, hold short of November-Alpha, cross behind the United seven-four-seven, then Bravo, X-ray, Quebec to the ramp." Unless you've studied the airport diagram, which is part of the airport's instrument approach charts, you may be caught unprepared.

If you are in training for an instrument rating or airline transport pilot certificate, a Class B airport might be a perfect location to practice instrument approaches and procedures. Also, to ensure the safety of your flight, you may need to land at a Class B airport when faced with such things as deteriorating weather. Class B airports typically have plenty of instrument approaches with low minimums, and approach controllers can help you avoid storms. Also, FBOs that serve big Class B airports typically have comfortable facilities, flight planning rooms with computerized weather, and can arrange for anything from a cab or rental car to hotel accommodations.

Class B Requirements

Class B airspace is controlled airspace in the strictest sense. Like Class C and D airspace, which surround airports with operating control towers, pilots who fly in Class B airspace must follow the basic procedures for communications and operations laid out in FAR 91.129. Aircraft arriving at or transitioning the airspace must establish two-way communication with the appropriate ATC facility. Sectional and VFR terminal area charts give you the frequencies.

Besides the major or "primary" airport, smaller, "satellite" airports can be found within the Class B boundaries. When departing from a satellite airport within the Class B area, pilots must follow the tower instructions for departure, and then establish and maintain communication with the Class B controller while in the Class B airspace. If the satellite is a nontower airport, pilots must contact the Class B controller as soon as possible after departure and maintain communication with the Class B controller while in the Class B airspace.

The first operating rule that separates Class B from Class C and D airspace is as simple as ABC - Always Be Cleared. Not only must you be in two-way communication with ATC before you enter Class B airspace, you can't fly in the airspace until a controller gives you a clearance to do so. Don't make assumptions on this matter, either. If you don't hear the controller use your airplane's N-number and say "cleared to enter the Class B airspace," ask for that clearance before you cross any broad blue line that depicts the Class B boundaries on a sectional chart.

Class B and Students

Generally, student and recreational pilots are not permitted to fly in Class B airspace, or to take off or land at a Class B airport. But, if a student pilot, or recreational pilot seeking private certification, complies with FAR 61.95, solo operations are allowed at specific Class B airports, which are listed in Section 4 of FAR Part 91's Appendix D.

FAR 61.95 requires a student to receive ground and flight instruction in operating in Class B airspace, and the instructor must provide a 90-day endorsement for solo operations in the specific Class B airspace. The training and endorsement are good for a specific Class B airport only. If an endorsement says an instructor has trained the student to fly in the Denver, Colorado (DIA) Class B airspace, the CFI must conduct that training in the DIA Class B airspace and no other Class B airspace. Furthermore, only the instructor who gives the dual instruction can make the endorsement. A different instructor cannot renew the 90-day Class B endorsement unless that CFI gives the student the required ground and flight instruction in that Class B airspace.

It's important to endorse a student's logbook properly. The endorsement for operation in Class B airspace should read as follows: "[student name] has received the required ground and flight instruction and has been found competent to conduct solo flight in the [airport identifier] Class B airspace."

As with other endorsements, instructors may stipulate conditions under which the student can make colo slights such as maximum wind or minimum ceiling and visibility. The instructor must sign and date the endorsement.

Regardless whether a student complies with FAR 61.95, the following airports do not allow any student operations, mostly because of the heavy volume of traffic:

  • Atlanta, Georgia (ATL)

  • Boston, Massachusetts (BOS)

  • Chicago, Illinois (ORD)

  • Dallas, Texas (DFW)

  • Los Angeles, California (LAX)

  • Miami, Florida (MIA)

  • Newark, New Jersey (EWR)

  • New York, New York (JFK)

  • New York, New York (LGA)

  • San Francisco, California (SFO)

  • Washington, D.C. (DCA)

  • Andrews AFB, Maryland

Next is an equipment requirement. Given the necessity that you must receive a clearance, the requirement for a two-way radio is obvious, but FAR 91.131 also spells out another ABC - an Active transponder Beacon with Mode C (altitude reporting). Class B airspace is simply too busy to routinely allow an aircraft into the mix without a Mode C transponder.

Controllers, as well as pilots, need all the help they can get to maintain safe separation between aircraft, and Mode C gives controllers that tool, especially for vertical separation. An airplane's Mode C transponder also "reports" to the TCAS (traffic alert and collision avoidance system) found on large, commercial aircraft and many corporate aircraft.

If you fly IFR in Class B airspace, your aircraft must have an operating VOR or TACAN receiver. VFR aircraft are exempt from this requirement, so if a controller tells you to track to or from a VOR, and you don't have a working VOR receiver, you can reply "unable," and the controller will give you a heading to fly.

The minimum pilot qualification to operate without restrictions in Class B airspace is a private certificate, but with the proper training and endorsements, a student or recreational pilot can land at all but a handful of Class B airports (see sidebar).

B Sharp — B Safe

Class B airspace and airports are busy places. A high degree of pilot knowledge and skill - and a healthy dose of preflight planning - are definite assets. As you prepare to fly to or from a Class B airport, study the airport's entry in the Airport/Facility Directory. Also examine the airport diagram, which you can find on instrument approach charts for the airport. Usually, Class B airports have a complex network of taxiways, so knowing where you are and where to go is half the battle of negotiating the airport like a pro. An instrument approach chart also gives the frequencies you'll need including approach control, ATIS, tower, ground, and clearance delivery. Knowing the layout of the airport, runways, FBOs, and other facilities can greatly ease the tension associated with operating in Class B.

Not everything you'll want to know is published, such as prominent landmarks, parking areas, or other procedures. Whether you're a student, or a private pilot making your first flight into Class B, it's a good idea to work with an instructor who flies to and from the airport frequently.

Precise communication in Class B airspace is critical. Controllers are accustomed to dealing with "old pros," and communications often approach a rapid-fire staccato as controllers direct the high-density flow of traffic. Listening carefully so you don't miss a radio call is most important. Avoid unnecessary chatter and stick to the business at hand. Have a note pad handy to copy clearances, transponder codes, altitudes, headings, and frequencies.

Remember, procedures at a Class B airport can differ from other controlled airports. For example, when you depart from airports such Boston's Logan International, clearance delivery gives pilots their VFR and IFR departure clearances. Instead of calling ground control after receiving their clearance, pilots are supposed to monitor ground control and listen for their taxi instructions.

Runway incursions - especially at large airports - have received a lot of attention recently. Never take off, land, or taxi without the proper clearance, and remember, a clearance to "taxi to" a runway doesn't clear you to cross that runway. A taxi clearance to a location implies that you can taxi across taxiways and inactive runways - unless the clearance instructs you to "hold short" at a particular point. When taxiing, follow the clearance's prescribed route. Make sure you understand and abide by any "hold short" instructions - and always acknowledge any hold-short clearance.

Let's say you've just landed on JFK's Runway 13L. As you clear the runway and switch to ground control when instructed, the controller rattles off your taxi clearance - "Zulu-Alpha-Bravo, hold short of November-Alpha, cross behind the United seven-four-seven, then Bravo, X-ray, Quebec to the ramp."

Class B Landing Fees

Most Class B airports charge landing fees based on type or size of aircraft (number of engines and gross weight). In addition, you might have to pay a ramp fee and, possibly, a handling fee. These fees vary from airport to airport and sometimes time of day.

At Boston's Logan International Airport, the basic landing fee is $27.50. An extra $25 buys you eight hours of parking. In addition, expect to pay the FBO a $20 handling fee ($35 for a light twin). At Los Angeles International, landing fees start at $20 for a single-engine aircraft, but that includes eight hours of daytime parking. Both airports waive some of the fees if you buy a minimum quantity of fuel. Even if the fuel costs more that you might pay elsewhere, the reduction in fees makes the fuel purchase a winning proposition.

At New York's JFK International, landing fees are based on gross weight, and pilots pay $2.95 per 1,000 pounds gross weight. But when you land is important. JFK adds a $100 surcharge if you land or take off during the airport's busy hours, which are between 1500 and 2200 local time. If you land a light twin at nearby LaGuardia Airport, where the New York Port Authority sets the fees, you'll have to pay a $125 (about $112 for a single) fee regardless of the time of day, and that fee only covers your first hour on the ramp. Additional parking is $25 an hour.

User fees at Class B airports can add a staggering sum to the cost of flying, so do your homework before you fly. Call ahead to find out what the fees are, and where the best deals on fuel and fees can be had.

Unless you've studied the airport diagram, you may be caught unprepared. If you get lost or disoriented on the ground, ask the controller for clarification. You can also request "progressive" taxi instructions, and the ground controller will guide you step by step to your destination.

One of Class B's purposes is to separate larger, faster aircraft from smaller, slower aircraft, and to avoid some of the wake turbulence problems. Anytime you fly in Class B airspace - especially during takeoff, approach, and landing - exercise extreme caution for wake turbulence. On the ground, beware of jet blast, which can act like a giant leaf blower on a small aircraft. A departing jumbo jet can spew a 70-mph blast as far as 600 feet, so don't be in a hurry to taxi onto the runway behind a jet even if the controller clears you to do so. Also avoid following a jet too closely while taxiing. A powerful blast can hit you when the jet adds power.

When you depart from a Class B airport, you must follow any published procedures. For example, turbine aircraft must climb as quickly as practical to 1,500 feet AGL or more and follow established noise abatement procedures. Piston-powered aircraft also may be required to follow specific departure paths and noise abatement procedures.

As with landing at a Class D airport, pilots must be at or above the VASI (visual approach slope indicator) during the approach and to make left traffic unless ATC gives other instructions. Because ATC sequences smaller, slower aircraft with jets, controllers sometimes request that pilots of slower aircraft keep their speed up on final approach. Flying your approach safely at a higher speed may take some additional training and practice (at an airport other than Class B, naturally).

Speaking of speed, FAR 91.117 says a pilot cannot fly faster than 200 knots "in the airspace underlying a Class B airspace area or in a VFR corridor designated through such a Class B airspace area." In Class B airspace itself, you can't fly faster than 250 knots, unless otherwise cleared by ATC. If you can't comply with a speed request safely, tell the controller you're "unable."

Also, tell controllers you're unable to comply with other instructions, such as heading, or altitudes, if you can't fulfill their requests safely. Controllers can't see everything you do from the cockpit - an approach controller can't see the clouds he may be vectoring you into, for example - so let them know if you have a problem with an instruction or clearance.

FAR 91.131 requires that in Class B airspace, training operations must "comply with any procedures established by ATC for such operations in that area." If you plan to conduct training operations in Class B airspace, consider contacting the tower or approach control facility beforehand to learn about any special procedures. If you're unsure whom to call, the nearest FAA Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) can help direct you to the proper facility.

Emergency Operations

Having a radio failure while you're flying in Class B airspace can be an unnerving experience, but the regulations spell out the procedures you should follow. If you're flying VFR, you can land as long as the weather is at or above basic VFR minimums, you maintain visual contact with the tower, and you receive a clearance to land (watch for light gun signals).

Learning More

Flight Training, April '98Some Class B airports seem to discourage the little guys from flying to and from them, but others are more than happy to accommodate students and private pilots learning how to fly in Class B airspace, particularly during slow periods. Calling the Class B airport's ATC facility manager is the best way to find out how the airport deals with training flights.

Many Class B facilities participate in Operation Raincheck. Open to all pilots, these safety seminars, which often include tours of the radar and tower facilities, are a great way to meet your ATC counterparts and to ask questions about all aspects of flying Class B airspace. With all its requirements, procedures, and potential problems, Class B airspace can sometimes seem intimidating, but the more you learn, the more comfortable you'll become operating in the big "B."