From Jeff Goin’s 2006 USHPA Magazine Article

Our sweetly simple FAR 103 grants enormous flexibility. It gives equally ambiguous restrictions—leaving a lot up to us. The sharp edge of this freedom is how easy we can cause problems or get “violated” by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). While a violation is expensive, it is the problems that need to be addressed.

The FAA isn’t out to “get” us—in almost all cases, violations stem from complaints or accidents involving the general public or law enforcement, not the FAA.

Some rules are straight forward—there’s just no excuse to violate them. Others open wide Pandora’s box of interpretations but, one thing is clear, if we cause damage to a non-participant, especially via colliding with an airliner—it will put enormous pressure on the FAA to enact restrictions. This expose is presented as an aid to help minimize that chance.

For brevity I’ll dispense with altitude boundary terminology such as “at or above” or “up to but not including.” Give the boundaries several hundred feet to be sure.

5,1,2,3 refers to the most common cloud clearance and visibility: 500 feet below, 1000 feet above and 2000 feet horizontally away from the clouds with at least 3 miles visibility.

Two’s Company

Cu—several flyers rode them to cloud base. One experienced pilot was making the best of it, cruising from thermal to thermal, and staying high the whole time when he saw an aircraft.

For the descending commuter flight it was just the usual bumpiness down ‘low’ – air to be endured during their last few minutes. Punching through this stuff makes for a rough ride that nobody likes in an airplane.

The paraglider pilot saw this commuter approaching from at least a mile away but could do little besides a spiral. The commuter plane, probably flying about 230 knots true airspeed (about 400 feet per second), didn’t see the glider until they were only a half-mile apart. He banked sharply to avoid a collision – they likely came within 5 seconds of hitting.

Right of Way

When hang glider pilots were vying for a slice of 1980’s sky, the FAA said, among other things, “OK, but don’t get in the way of the existing aircraft.” That got codified as:

FAR 103.13 (a) 

Each person operating an ultralight vehicle shall maintain vigilance so as to see and avoid aircraft and shall yield the right-of-way to all aircraft.

FAR 103.13 (b) 

No person may operate an ultralight vehicle in a manner that creates a collision hazard with respect to any aircraft.

The onus is entirely on us. And it’s very ambiguous; do we need to avoid altitudes where aircraft fly? Do we need to avoid flying anywhere near airports? It’s not defined—we must work it out on our own. But if we do cause a collision hazard there is no legal grounds to stand on—it’s going to be our fault. If an airplane blunders through our local flying area, it’s still up to us to avoid him.

The first step to avoidance is knowing where airplanes will likely be. Secondly, we must know the airspace and its requirements. It’s not that difficult: In almost all the USA, you launch in G airspace and climb into the overlying E airspace. That low layer of G airspace requires 1 mile visibility and remaining clear of clouds. E airspace requires 5,1,2,3.

Airplanes, by law, are airspeed limited below 10,000 feet ASL (above sea level). Above that they can go full out—easily topping 450 mph. Understandably, the visibility and cloud requirements are higher too. If we’re above 10,000’ MSL we must have at least 5 mile visibility, stay 1000’ below, 1000’ above and at least 1 mile horizontally away from any cloud. These “High Minimums” give us more distance to see and avoid the fast movers.

A collision would be disastrous enough, having it happen while flying illegally would be devastating to ‘self regulation’. Little tolerance will be granted to the individual or the sport after such a travesty. We fly at the pleasure of a nervous public who would just as soon ban us than to tolerate risk from our operations. It doesn’t always seem fair, but that is the reality.

Sectional Charts

Aviation charts are great tools. They’re our tools, showing us where it’s legal to fly, what our minimums are, and where airplanes are more likely to be. Check out and type in your closes 3-letter airport identifier. The U.S. country code is “K” so *if* a 4-letter airport code is used it starts with K. ATL becomes KATL. But most programs/sites (like Skyvector) work fine with the 3-letter version.

Remember that we almost always launch in G Airspace then climb into overlying E airspace. We can legally fly in both all the way up to 18,000’ in most areas (Note: there is no “F” airspace in the United States). We can dispense with discussion of A, B, C, and D airspace – you can’t fly in these at all without permission from the controlling agency and most always need an aircraft radio to do so.

Inland pilots need this knowledge most although, as our example will show, any ridge cutting through populated areas will likely have its share of restricted airspace.

Charts can look daunting at first—colorful and frequently meaningless with hieroglyphics splattered about. But we only need only a fraction of this information. They also contain some interesting topographical tidbits to benefit our planning. For example, hills and mountains are depicted with elevations in 500’ increments (sometimes 250’).

Our greatest concern to address with charts is: “Can I launch from here? And if so, what do I need to know about it.”

After a 30 minute soaring flight with a top landing, the experienced pilot enthused to several others waiting at launch about conditions. He was pleased that it was so buoyant despite milky visibility and that he could stay up in it. He described reaching a deep blue sky just 1800’ over launch scratching up the wide, weak thermals.

A curious student pilot took it all in and later asked him “That looks like fun but how could you see well enough to stay up?”

“Well there was probably one or two mile visibility which is enough to stay oriented on direction and the lift areas are pretty predictable here” he replied.

The curious student happened to be an FAA Air Safety Inspector taking hang gliding lessons. He wasn’t out to “get” anyone and didn’t say anything then. But he did set out to do some research regarding visibility requirements. Was the high-flier legal?

It turns out the visibility was indeed OK to launch – only a mile is needed. But the pilot left G airspace when he climbed more than 1200 feet above the surface; any higher required at least 3 miles visibility. He was blatantly illegal by his own description and the inspector could have easily started violation proceedings. A little knowledge from the high flyer would have served him well here.

After first determining a launch is within your skill, the next question should be its legality.

One San Diego site, “Horse,” sometimes sees gliders soaring above 11,000’. It happens to be immediately under PILLO intersection—a major flyover point for inbound jets landing at the airline airport, Lindberg. Those jets are whizzing by doing 300 mph at 10,000’.

Don’t assume that a collision with a jet would only mince the pilot—200+ pounds of pilot, harness, motor and wing could bring down an airliner.

Remember, 5-1-2-3 means 500 feet below, 1000 feet above and 2000 feet horizontally from the clouds and 3 miles visibility.
Example: Thousand Oaks

Almost every popular flying site sits in G airspace with E airspace 1200’ overhead (sometimes 700’ as you’ll see). You must always have at least a mile visibility and be able to remain clear of clouds to launch. After climbing into the E airspace above, you must have 3 miles visibility and stay 500’ below, 1000’ above and at least 2000’ to the side (5-1-2-3). Airplanes on instrument flight plans fly through these clouds and need maneuvering room in case they’re surprised by you. Visiting the “White Room,” especially anywhere near airplane flight paths, is playing Russian Roulette with both your life, others’ lives, and our sport.

Let’s look at some potential launch locations and other areas on the Thousand Oaks excerpt which is just Northwest of Los Angeles.

Thousand Oaks sectional chart with numbers

When looking at the chart (almost any chart, for that matter), assume that the surface is in G with overlying E airspace at 1200’ above ground level (AGL). Most G airspace (below 10,000’) requires 1 mile visibility and remaining clear of clouds. In many populated areas or near airports, the overlying E airspace starts at only 700’ instead 1200’. This is marked by magenta graduated shaded areas (Spot 9 sits on one).

Think of this entire chart as covered with G airspace and E airspace above that. Other types are present but that forms a solid base of understanding.

Spot 1: This would be a great site. It sits in G airspace with overlying E at only 700’ since it is within the magenta shaded area. The lower floor of class E is fairly common in heavily trafficked areas like this.

Can I Launch: Yes, Its in G airspace, 1 mile minimum visibility and clear of clouds.

Climbout: Above 700’ AGL must have 5,1,2,3. Max altitude is 18,000.

Soaring along the ridge to the southeast would be legal until reaching the dashed circle line just northwest of spot 3.

Spot 2: Pretend it’s a lake and you want to boat tow. This magenta dashed line defines the “Surface Area of Class E Airspace” and is off limits to us. Interestingly it has no top. When it was designed that wasn’t an issue because the purpose was to require airplane pilots to have better visibility – it dropped class E down to the surface. But latecomer FAR 103 used it to help separate us from other air traffic without having an upper limit – it goes up indefinitely.

Spot 3: Blue dashes outline the D airspace surrounding nearly all tower-controlled airports including this one just above Oxnard. They’re off limits unless you get permission from the control tower (possible with aircraft radios or by telephone). Just below spot 3 is a “20” in a box which shows their D airspace tops out at 2000’ ASL.

Spot 4: Just like spot 3 except with the top at 3000’ ASL. Again, permission is required. Just below spot 4 is a restricted area R-2519. This piece of military airspace limits flying even if the airport wasn’t there – its controlling agency will be listed in the legend but, for pilots, a call to Flight Service is the most practical. They will likely give you a phone number to call. Call 800-WX-BRIEF, explain that you’re a hang glider pilot and would like to call the controlling agency for R-2519.

Can I Launch: No unless you have permission from NAS Point Mugu. It’s in Class D airspace where “5-1-2-3” applies

Climbout: Above 3000’ MSL, you get into E airspace where “5-1-2-3” remains in effect. Above 10,000’ ASL “high requirements” apply (1000’ below any cloud, 1000’ above and 1 mile to the side). Max altitude is 18,000’.

Spot 5: Still in D airspace with a 2000’ top. That blue information tells how to contact the Camarillo airport using an aircraft radio – interpreting it is described on the chart’s legend.

Runways are labeled by the direction of takeoff or landing. So runway 8 means an 80° heading (nearly east) for takeoff or landing. This helps knowing what the air traffic will do when nearing or using airports – and how to stay clear. Blue airports have control towers and magenta airports do not but both use the same symbology. All patterns to a runway are left unless otherwise noted with an “RP” (Right Pattern). This one has “RP 8” which means that traffic will normally fly right turns to final on runway 8; useful information to help avoid where the airplanes are likely to be.

Can I Launch: No unless you have permission from the Camarillo Tower. It’s in Class D where “5-1-2-3” applies.

Climbout: Above 2000’ MSL you get into E airspace. “5-1-2-3” remains in effect Above 10,000’ ASL “high requirements” apply (1000’ below any cloud, 1000’ above and 1 mile to the side). Max altitude is 18,000’.

Spot 6: This points to a VOR – a navigation aid that airplanes frequently fly over. Although GPS navigation is far more commonplace, these stations still attract traffic that may be practicing procedures – they’re good places to avoid if over a few hundred feet. It also happens to be inside the Class D airspace around the airport just west of it and off limits without control tower permission.

Spot 7: The line being pointed to has no meaning to us. Airplanes require an operating “Transponder” that identifies them and their altitude to air traffic controllers; we can fly without one. Although not about airspace per-se, this ring engenders many questions.

Spot 8: All these eights are on the magenta dashed line surrounding the “Surface Area of Class E” airspace (just like spot 2) east of Camarillo airport. Unfortunately it excludes some otherwise good launches. It is intended to accommodate approaching airplanes into the three airports around Oxnard.

Spot 9: This is just inside the shaded graduated magenta line (runs L to R) and would be a great launch site.

Can I Launch? Yes, its in G airspace and requires 1 mile minimum visibility.

Climbout? Above 700’ AGL you must have 5-1-2-3. Above 10,000’ ASL “high requirements” apply (1000’ below any cloud, 1000’ above and 1 mile to the side). Max altitude is 18,000’.

Spot K: Getting closer to Los Angeles here and under their class “B” airspace. In this area, the segment outlined by the blue shaded line, goes from 7000’ to 10,000’ MSL. So it would be legal to launch and climb up to nearly 7000’. Be mindful that airplanes also do this and they congregate at the edges of and below these. A lot of airplane traffic plies the LA skies without talking to a soul – they skirt this tightly controlled airspace and some corridors get very busy.

Launch? Yes, its in G airspace and requires 1 mile minimum visibility.

Climbout? Above 700’ AGL you must have 5-1-2-3. Max altitude is 7000’ which is the floor of LA’s “B” airspace.

Example: Jackson Hole, WY

Jackson Hole sectional chart excerpt

Getting away from the congestion near Los Angeles, we find lots of desert and open areas; perfect for our type of flying. But there’s still airliner traffic going into the main airport for Jackson Hole and so knowledge with vigilance is necessary when flying nearby. Here are some airspace considerations for the labeled areas.

Spot 1: This launch in G airspace would be perfect – it’s away from all the airport activity. You only have to worry about gliders coming down from the airport near spot 2.

Can I Launch? Yes, it’s in G airspace and requires 1 mile minimum visibility.

Climbout? Above 1200’ AGL you must have 5-1-2-3. Above 10,000’ ASL “high requirements” apply (1000’ below any cloud, 1000’ above and 1 mile to the side). Max altitude is 18,000’.

Spot 2: The airport just to the North should cause some concern when launching from here. It’s perfectly legal to do so, but in a northeast wind, the airplanes will be making right patterns to land towards the northeast. This is indicated by the “RP” under Driggs Reed airport info.

One of the more fun uses for these charts is telling gross elevations. There won’t be a lot of detail but most anyplace worth its rise will show up.

Can I Launch? Yes, it’s in G airspace and requires 1 mile minimum visibility.

Climbout? Above 700’ AGL you enter E airspace and must have 5-1-2-3. Above 10,000’ ASL “high requirements” apply (1000’ below any cloud, 1000’ above and 1 mile to the side). Max altitude is 18,000’.

Spot 3: The blue line pointed at by 3 represents an “Airway” that airplanes tend to fly along anywhere above about 2000’ AGL. We have no restriction associated with them but extra vigilance or avoidance would be in order.

Spot 4: The solid blue line with dots on the inside denotes a wildlife area. Pilots are “requested” to avoid flying in these areas below 2000’. It’s not much of an issue for free flyers given our silent nature.

Can I Launch? Yes, it’s in G airspace and requires 1 mile minimum visibility.

Climbout? Above 700’ AGL you must have 5-1-2-3. Above 10,000’ ASL “high requirements” apply (1000’ below any cloud, 1000’ above and 1 mile to the side). Max altitude is 18,000’.

Spot 5: This is pointing at the blue dashed line depicting the D airspace around Jackson Hole’s airline airport. It tops out at 8900’ and being blue means there’s a control tower.

Spot 6: Launching here in the D airspace would require permission from the control tower.

Spot 7: The Magenta shading pointed at here is where the floor of E airspace drops down from 1200’ to 700’. This accommodates airplanes that may be flying into Jackson Hole – the idea is to lower the E which requires better visibility. They don’t want folks flying around above 700’ who can only see a mile.

Spot 8: A wildlife area where pilots are “requested” to stay above 2000’ AGL.

Spot 9: The VOR navigation aid that tends to congregate airplanes and is best avoided at higher altitudes (above about 2000’ AGL).

Spot J: Here is one of the few areas in the country where there is no overlying E airspace. The sharp edge of the blue shaded line marks the edge. That fact has almost no significance on us except that we can get away with only a mile visibility up to 10,000’ ASL.

Can I Launch? Yes, it’s in G airspace and requires 1 mile minimum visibility.

Climbout? You’ll be in G all the way up to 18,000 feet MSL. By regulation though, the visibility minimum goes up to 3 miles climbing above 1200’ AGL and goes up to “high requirements” above 10,000 feet MSL.

Spot K: This is just inside the E airspace area.

Spot L: Just outside the E airspace area.

Can I Launch? Yes, it’s in G airspace and requires remaining clear of clouds 1 mile minimum visibility.

Climbout? You’ll stay in G airspace all the way up. Above 1200’ AGL, although you still only need 1 mile visibility, the cloud clearance goes up to what E requires: 500’ below, 1000 above and 2000 to the side. Above 10,000’ ASL “high requirements” apply (1000’ below any cloud, 1000’ above and 1 mile to the side). Max altitude is 18,000’.

Help keep us welcome in the national airspace system. This knowledge can help us be more aware of our surroundings and honor the trust placed in us. The rules are flexible indeed and have worked well for everybody concerned. But we must always be mindful that “we’re not alone up there”.