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Sec. 91.157 Special VFR weather minimums. (a) Except as provided in appendix D, section 3, of this part, special VFR operations may be conducted under the weather minimums and requirements of this section, instead of those contained in Sec. 91.155, below 10,000 feet MSL within the airspace contained by the upward extension of the lateral boundaries of the controlled airspace designated to the surface for an airport.

Suppose I'm granted an SVFR clearance to land at KSTS (a typical towered airport with a Delta airspace and Echo surface extensions). Can I fly through the echo extensions with only SVFR minima? (e.g. for helicopter just clear of clouds) Or do the 91.155 minima apply. This really boils down the definition of "designated to the surface for an airport".

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    $\begingroup$ Not a duplicate, but this answer addresses the meaning of "dedicated to the surface for an airport" pretty well. The "for an airport" is really superfluous and is considered so by the FAA $\endgroup$ – TomMcW Jan 30 '18 at 20:33
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, that helps. But I'm still unclear on the scope of an SVFR clearance. Is it a clearance for lower minima in all the surface airspace for the airport? (Delta + surface Echo) Or only for the core Delta circle? My CFI says it's only for the central 5SM Delta and that the Echo surface extensions remain at higher minima. This makes no sense to me, so trying to understand. $\endgroup$ – user28642 Jan 31 '18 at 1:40
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    $\begingroup$ ATC should tell you what they’re clearing you for. If they just say they’re clearing you for the delta then you will need to be VFR before you reach echo or avoid it. If you need SVFR through the echo you should tell them that when you request clearance. It will be up to them if they can do that or not. The point is, if you’re not told you’re cleared svfr into the echo then you are not $\endgroup$ – TomMcW Jan 31 '18 at 3:05
  • $\begingroup$ A comment to this related question aviation.stackexchange.com/a/49105/34686 by 757toga suggests that he experienced a case where a SVFR clearance could be granted for surface-level Class E extensions. And here is a related answer to another related ASE question: aviation.stackexchange.com/a/64206/34686 $\endgroup$ – quiet flyer Apr 17 at 1:32
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FAR 91.157(a) uses the phrase “within the airspace contained by the upward extension of the lateral boundaries of the controlled airspace designated to the surface for an airport” to indicate where a SVFR clearance may be authorized.

The FAA often uses the phrase "surface area" to refer to the controlled airspace that actually surrounds the airport for which it is designated, specifically excluding any surface-level Class E "extensions". An argument can be made that in the context of interpreting the meaning of the FARs, this is the most correct understanding of the phrase "surface area". This interpretation is based on the difference between the language used to describe surface-level Class E "extensions", and the language used to describe other surface-level Class E airspace, in the "Airspace Designations and Reporting Points" document, current edition FAA Order JO 7400.11E. For more on this, see the related ASE question What indication has the FAA given that phrases like "surface area of Class E airspace designated for an airport" do or don't include E4 "extensions"?.

But the phrase "surface area" does not appear in FAR 91.157(a).

However, the phrase "designated for an airport" does appear in FAR 91.157(a). An argument can be made -- again, based on based on the difference between the language used to describe surface-level Class E "extensions", and the language used to describe other surface-level Class E airspace, in the "Airspace Designations and Reporting Points" document, current edition FAA Order JO 7400.11E -- that this phrase excludes surface-level Class E "extensions". Again, for more on this, see the related ASE question What indication has the FAA given that phrases like "surface area of Class E airspace designated for an airport" do or don't include E4 "extensions"?. According to this interpretation, FAR 91.157(a) would not include the surface-level Class E "extensions", so Special VFR should not be authorized there.

However, one problem with this argument is that FAR 71.71(b) seems to either 1) use the phrase "designated for an airport" in its description of all surface-level Class E airspace, or 2) omit any reference to surface-level Class E "extensions" at all, in which case it seems the "extensions" might be construed not to legally exist at all. Obviously, the latter interpretation is somewhat problematic. This seems to imply that the phrase "designated for an airport" should not be construed to exclude surface-level Class E "extensions".

It is also unclear as to whether or not whether FAR 91.155(c), the regulation against flying below a ceiling of 1000' AGL or lower, applies in the surface-level Class E "extensions", because the language of FAR 91.155(c) is very parallel to the language of FAR 91.157(a). Again, the phrase "designated for an airport" is used, but the phrase "surface area" is not. For more on this, see the related ASE answer "Does FAR 91.155c apply to class E surface extensions?"

The last paragraph of this 2010 response from the FAA ATO Western Service Center concludes that due to the wording of FAR 91.157(a), SVFR should not be authorized in surface-level Class E "extensions".

One problem with the 2010 response from the FAA ATO Western Service Center is that is contains the passage "The language in FAR 91.157 exactly matches the language in FAAO 7400.9T par 6002.". This is not actually quite true, because FAAO 7400.9T par 6002. contains the phrase "The Class E airspace areas listed below are designated as a surface area for an airport." As we've already noted above, FAR 91.157(a) does not actually contain the phrase "surface area".

Naturally, for specific airspaces, sometimes there are also specific operational considerations that preclude authorization of Special VFR flight in surface-level Class E "extensions". One such case is noted in the second-to-last paragraph of this 2010 response from the FAA ATO Western Service Center (same link as immediately above). However, the related ASE answer A: In the US, in actual practice, workload permitting, will ARTC facilities grant SVFR clearance for surface-level Class E “extensions” (E4 airspace)? gives examples of similar situations where controllers are willing to authorize Special VFR flight in surface-level Class E "extensions".

FAA Order 7110.65Y, entitled "Air Traffic Control", states in section 7-5-1 that Special VFR flight will only be authorized "within the lateral boundaries of Class B, Class C, Class D, or Class E surface areas, below 10,000 feet MSL." As noted above, there are many instances where the FAA has used the phrase "surface area" to refer only to the controlled airspace that actually surrounds the airport for which it is designated, specifically excluding any surface-level Class E "extensions". So this passage could be construed as guidance that Special VFR flight should not be authorized in surface-level Class E "extensions". But it's not clear that this guidance would really be congruent with the best interpretation of the meaning of FAR 91.157(a).

In actual practice, controllers will often authorize SVFR flight in surface-level Class E "extensions". For more on this, see this related ASE answer. (And controllers generally use the word "surface area" in its most logical sense-- meaning the entire column of controlled airspace that is in contact with the earth's surface, including any surface-level Class E "extensions".)

The truth is that the FAA is deeply divided as to whether phrases in the FARs like "surface area", "designated for an airport", and "surface area of controlled airspace designated for an airport" should or should not be construed to include surface-level Class E "extensions".1 Ambiguity around this issue has existed ever since the 1993 "alphabet" airspace re-designation.2 There's some consideration of a future rule-making effort to address this issue.3 It's possible that the language in AIM 3-2-6, as well as in the legend of the Chart Supplements, that reads "Surface area arrival extensions become part of the surface area and are in effect during the same times as the surface area" will be changed in the future to avoid implying that all regulations that apply to the core "surface area" should automatically be construed to apply to the surface-level Class E "extensions" as well.4

Due the confusion around this issue, whenever a pilot is issued a SVFR clearance for a given controlled airspace, he or she should verify whether or not it includes any adjoining "extensions", in any case where that might be a factor.

Footnotes:

1,2,3,4) Source-- comments made by high-level FAA staffers during April 2021 airspace charting meeting.

Related ASE questions and answers

A: Does an SVFR clearance extend to Echo surface extensions?

A: In the US, in actual practice, workload permitting, will ARTC facilities grant SVFR clearance for surface-level Class E “extensions” (E4 airspace)?

A: Does FAR 91.155c apply to class E surface extensions?

Q: What indication has the FAA given that phrases like "surface area of Class E airspace designated for an airport" do or don't include E4 "extensions"?

A: What indication has the FAA given that phrases like “surface area of Class E airspace designated for an airport” do or don't include E4 “extensions”?

A: Is the official weather report for an airport in Class D airspace controlling for its Class E surface extension?

Q: Which parts of class E airspace can an ultralight (part 103) fly in without prior ATC authorization?

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  • $\begingroup$ In the comments below an answer to the question "Does FAR 91.155c apply to class E surface extensions?", John Hutchinson commented "Furthermore, I've confirmed through other sources that there is no mechanism to get a special VFR clearance in the echo extensions. " -- would you mind sharing with us what those sources were? That information might allow this answer to be improved. Thank you. $\endgroup$ – quiet flyer Oct 11 '18 at 20:00
  • $\begingroup$ @John Hutchinson - in the comments below an answer to another question, you commented "Furthermore, I've confirmed through other sources that there is no mechanism to get a special VFR clearance in the echo extensions. " -- would you mind sharing with us what those sources were? That information might allow several answers to be improved. PS sorry for the redundancy, still learning the ropes here, just figured out that the "at" sign makes the comment show up in your inbox. $\endgroup$ – quiet flyer Oct 12 '18 at 5:20
  • $\begingroup$ Sure, during my rotorcraft checkride, the DPE (Barry Llloyd) asked me, "if the field (KSTS) is IFR and you can get an SVFR clearance to depart, can you fly with SVFR cloud clearance/vis through the echo extensions. After a torturous discussion he finally showed me his long correspondence with the FAA and finally a letter from the FAA stating that there is no known mechanism to grant an SVFR clearance in a type 2 echo airpace (like at KSTS). I will reach out to Barry to try to get a copy of the letter. $\endgroup$ – user28642 Oct 12 '18 at 19:23
  • $\begingroup$ I got the info from my DPE but it’s too much to fit in a comment $\endgroup$ – user28642 Oct 15 '18 at 5:24
  • $\begingroup$ I posted the additional info as a separate answer. This info aligns with your interpretation $\endgroup$ – user28642 Oct 15 '18 at 5:49
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This is an answer to the question provided by my checkride examiner Barry Lloyd

On 01-26-2010, a query asking whether SVFR is available in Class E extensions was routed to FAA ATC Headquarters. Below is a response to that query from the FAA ATO Western Service Center:

"Our opinion is:

FAR 91.157 (a) ..."special VFR operations may be conducted"..."within the airspace contained by the upward extension of the lateral boundaries of the controlled airspace designated to the surface for an airport." This permits SVFR clearances within the vertical extension, not the lateral/horizontal extension of an airport designated surface area.

FAAO 7400.9T par 6002. Definition of Class E2 airspace: "The Class E airspace areas listed below are designated as a surface area for an airport."

FAAO 7400.9T par 6004. Definition of Class E4 airspace: "...airspace extending upward from the surface designated as an extension to a Class D or Class E surface area."

The language in FAR 91.157 exactly matches the language in FAAO 7400.9T par 6002. Par. 6004 does not match and the FAR does not permit SVFR operations in the lateral extension of a surface area designated for an airport; only within the vertical extension.

Presumably this could be corrected if we indeed want to provide for SVFR within lateral extensions, but it is currently not permitted.

There are other operational issues involved: eg. an extension to a Class D surface area where the tower provides SVFR services within the Class D airspace as is permitted via LOA. They cannot issue a SVFR clearance in the E4 extension. If permitted, the controlling agency, presumably the ARTCC would have to do this.

Our opinion is that E4 airspace is not part of the airspace designated as the surface area for an airport. The surface area for an airport is D, C, or E2. Extensions are treated differently from surface areas designated for an airport, ie there is no communication requirement. In addition extensions, by definition in 7400.9, are not airspace designated as the "surface area for an airport"."

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you very much for posting that John. $\endgroup$ – quiet flyer Oct 15 '18 at 6:29
  • $\begingroup$ Is it possible for me to get a physical copy of this 2010 FAA document? A scan or photocopy? If so maybe we can exchange info by chat or something $\endgroup$ – quiet flyer May 4 '19 at 17:04
  • $\begingroup$ chat with me here in this linked room chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/93239/… if you can scan or photocopy the item you've transcribed here in this answer-- thanks. I am considering communicating with the FAA directly regarding this and other closely related topics. Steve $\endgroup$ – quiet flyer May 4 '19 at 19:21
  • $\begingroup$ Still interested in obtaining copy of document if you ever run across it, thnx, ping me and I'll provide more contact info $\endgroup$ – quiet flyer May 20 '19 at 16:25
  • $\begingroup$ A key point regarding this answer is contained in a comment left under a differerent answer (my answer)-- the comment reads as follows-- "Sure, during my rotorcraft checkride, the DPE (Barry Llloyd) asked me, "if the field (KSTS) is IFR and you can get an SVFR clearance to depart, can you fly with SVFR cloud clearance/vis through the echo extensions. (ctd...) $\endgroup$ – quiet flyer Mar 31 at 13:05
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The Class E airspace that goes to the surface for KSTS is Northwest towards Hearldsburg. As long as you are within the lateral boundaries of that segment of Class E airspace (northwest of KSTS), which goes all the way to the surface (as opposed to starting at 700 or 1200 AGL) you are in airspace where SVFR is authorized.

enter image description here

The regulation (cited correctly in your question) "within the airspace contained by the upward extension of the lateral boundaries of the controlled airspace designated to the surface for an airport."

Class E airspace is "Controlled Airspace" by definition:

From the Airman's Information Manual para. 3-2-1 a. -

Controlled Airspace. A generic term that covers the different classification of airspace (Class A, Class B, Class C, Class D, and Class E airspace) and defined dimensions within which air traffic control service is provided to IFR flights and to VFR flights in accordance with the airspace classification.

Therefore, as long as you have received a SVFR clearance from ATC, have at least 1 mile vis, remain clear of clouds, and between sunrise and sunset, you may fly your airplane under SVFR in the Class E surface area depicted in the picture above (as asked in your question)

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your reply. I'm continuing to get conflicting answers to this question. This morning I got bold and asked a controller at KSTS. He responded that when they give and SVFR clearance it's only valid in the lateral bounds of the Delta and further that they don't even control the Echo extensions. He went on to say some disparaging comments about the Echo extensions, which I won't repeat ;-) $\endgroup$ – user28642 Feb 19 '18 at 20:18
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    $\begingroup$ @john Hutchinson - no disrespect to the controller, but the rule says what it says. Here is some wording from the ATC Handbook regarding where SVFR is authorized: (7110.65W, para. 7-5-1-a 2) "Only within the lateral boundaries of Class B, Class C, Class D, or Class E surface areas, below 10,000 feet MSL." Now, ATC could limit in its clearance such as "Cleared to enter Class D surface area, maintain Special VFR" (see the example in the reference above). SVFR is done in many places in a Class E surface area. Sometimes there is only Class E surface area for an airport (no Class D) $\endgroup$ – 757toga Feb 19 '18 at 20:33
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnHutchinson - Here is a pretty clear example of Special VFR in Class E surface area: faa.gov/about/office_org/headquarters_offices/ato/service_units/… $\endgroup$ – 757toga Feb 19 '18 at 20:52
  • $\begingroup$ I feel this answer is not correct and have provided an alternative one. $\endgroup$ – quiet flyer Oct 11 '18 at 19:27
  • $\begingroup$ @quietflyer - I appreciate your answer/comments. There are certainly many seemingly valid and logical hypotheses that would point to my answer being incorrect. The Jan. 2018 memo shown in your answer is one of them. However, keep in mind that memo addresses only part 107 operations, not part 91. Lastly, carefully read this link regarding SVFR operations in Sitka Alaska. Clearly SVFR ops there includes the Class E extensions. faa.gov/about/office_org/headquarters_offices/ato/service_units/… $\endgroup$ – 757toga Oct 11 '18 at 20:52

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