Disclaimer: I am not a Certified Flight Instructor, nor a Basic or Advanced Ground Instructor. Below is just me helping myself to better gain knowledge about read sectional charts. This is what I’ve used to refresh myself on sectional charts and has been a learning experience about reading a chart more in depth. I’ve updated this recently to fix some errors, if you find anymore, please send them my way to fix!
UPDATE: I’m updating this section completely to include more training materials and update How To Read A Sectional Chart more comprehensive. Right now you can download a PDF to have the information more handy. It is an updated version of this page.
Download it here: How To Read A Sectional Chart
This is an overview of the main area I looked at when going off my sectional chart when I learned to fly. It has a bunch of congested areas and different airspaces. You’ll see a lot of yellow on this one since the New York City area is a populous area. The colored dots are due to SkyVector and will tell you on the website if an airport is VFR/Marginal VFR/IFR/LIFR – they’re not on hard copies of sectionals.
This is the markings of a Class B airspace, specifically Boston Airport. The blue lines show the different levels and the blue text (pictured more closely) definite the limits of each “shelf.” The Bravo airspace is normally described as an upside down wedding cake (more than two layers)
This is the circle around any Class B airspace that is 3o nautical miles. It is called the Mode C Veil, which requires any aircraft flying within 30nm of a Class B to have a Mode C altitude encoding transponder. ATC must be able to tell the altitude of your aircraft even if they are not talking to you due to the volume of traffic in the area. If you are required to have the right equipment to enter this space, yet you are not within the Bravo airspace yet and do not need to be cleared into the Mode C Veil area.
This is the markings of a Class C airspace. The magenta lines define the inner and outer “shelf.” Pictured more closely is the magenta text that define the limits of each area. This one defines the inner core from the surface to 4400ft.
This is a Class D airport, it is the blue dashed lines. It also has a VOR at the airport which is the bigger blue solid line with radial marks for the VOR. The Class D is not necessarily a perfect circle, as you can see with this one. Above is the limit of the Class D airspace since there is only one area until like Class B/C airspaces so surface to the number in the box is assumed.
Above is a TRSA airspace – Terminal Radar Service Area. It’s an optional class C airspace – in a way. You are highly encouraged to talk to approach, but you don’t have to talk to them. The inner ring (which you can see to the right) is a Class D airport – you have to talk to ATC. You can see the blue dashes underneath the black line to define the D airspace.
This airspace is a Class E – surface to 700ft AGL. Unlike other airspaces, this class is is always those vertical limits. Do not get confused by the VOR near this airport, it is blue but the dashed magenta circle is the limits of the airspace. I know when I look quickly you may see the blue and assume it is Class D airspace, so always check the colors and the the line is dashed not hashed.
This is a nice combo of airspace markings. The airport is a class D (blue dashed line) while the rectangle off of it is Class E (surface to 700ft AGL) because of the magenta dashed lines. The magenta solid line is Class E (700ft to 1200ft AGL). The reason for this weird airspace combo: it’s only a part-time tower, so an IFR flight can talk to a controller all the way to the ground. The Class E is even lined up with the runway. It’s also important to know the Class E takes over when the Class D Tower is closed.
This is a group of obstacles (the M shape means more than one.) The numbers besides is MSL (AGL) The AGL height is not always available. It is less than 1000ft AGL.
This is a single obstacle without an AGL height shown and the symbol (lightening bolt shapes) above it means it is lighted at night or in bad weather. It is less than 1000ft AGL.
Another single obstacle with the MSL shown, but it is unlit. It is less than 1000ft AGL. This specific obstacle does not have AGL shown on the sectional.
This is a group of obstacles that is higher than 1000ft AGL (notice the different shape, the top of the M is skinnier and longer). Down in the left hand corner you’ll see again the MSL height and (AGL in parentheses.)
The magenta flag symbolizes a VFR reporting point. In black letting is the name of the reporting point. This one specifically I use when I call Tower on my way back from the south practice area. It lets Tower know where you are, especially if you don’t know the exact mileage away you are.
I’m a city girl so had no idea what these looked like. They are power lines, these little guys are all over my sectional. Good for check points, also good to know around airports.
Correct me if I’m wrong, this is a mine. I’ve never seen a mine. But hey, if you know what one looks like, report or navigate away!
There are lots of black squares on charts and they’re labeled for what they are, from ski areas, hospitals, I’ve seen prisons too!
Wind turbines are pretty easy to see and report but probably more common out west.
This is by me now! A sunken ship!
Racetracks, they’re all over surprisingly.
Another common one, stadiums. But check for TFRs too!
The little black lines over the water are dams and another reporting point or navigation point. Another one of these I’ve never seen from the air.
This is the symbol for an abandoned airport. It is on the chart so you can use it as a check point or not to confuse it with an open airport near it.
This is a controlled airport because it is blue. The three squares at the East, South, and West points of the circle mean it has fuel services available. The star signifies it has a beacon from sunset to sunrise.
Restricted airport symbol. It is for emergency use or authorization from specific person or agency.
The U means that the landing distance information is unverified. It’s a public use airport but exercise caution since current information may be lacking or wrong.
This is the marking for a helipad. Helicopters can land at this airport, but planes cannot. They won’t have enough room for you to land, so don’t land here!
This is a public use airport with no hard-surface runway longer than 1,500 feet. It has limited or no attendance.
Uncontrolled airport without fuel services, it is just a circle. You can see that it only has one runway by where the background of the sectional shows in the middle where the runway is.
Uncontrolled airport with fuel services and a beacon from sunset to sunrise. It has fuel due to three squares (it would be four without the beacon) and a star on the top signifies an airport with a beacon.
This is a seaplane airport. The same symbols apply for this, as you can tell it has fuel services.
Since this anchor doesn’t have a circle around it, it is not a normal seaplane airport. It is only used for seaplane emergencies.
You can see this airport is labeled as a private airport as told by the (Pvt) above the name, Calverton Exec. You can tell it’s an uncontrolled airport due to the magenta color of the runway outlines. The difference this airport just has the runways outlined versus a circle around the entire airport. That means one runway is greater than 8069ft in length and a hard surface. If it is controlled airport, the lines are blue.
This is just the information of an uncontrolled airport (because it’s written in magenta, it is uncontrolled) You have the name of the airport (followed by code in parentheses). This airport has the Automatic Weather Observing Station (AWOS) and lists its frequency. Next line says the altitude of the airport – 108 ft. It is lighted, which is denoted by the L, the star in front of it means the lighting operations are limited so check the A/FD. 25 is telling you the length of the longest runway in hundreds of feet. Lastly, is the CTAF frequency. The C is denoting it’s the CTAF.
This is an uncontrolled airport information. You can also see this uncontrolled airport doesn’t have a beacon, does have fuel services though. It also add the information there is a right pattern on runway 24.
This airport is a bit different than the others you can see it has ASOS vs. an ATIS or AWOS. Also the dotted circle around the airport means it has an Non-Directional Beacon at the airport which you can use to navigate by doing an Automatic Direction Finder (ADF).
This is information about JFK airport. It has a control tower which you haven’t seen in the information before (CT stands for Control Tower) and tells you the frequency. It also says NO SVFR. You cannot take off in Special VFR conditions at this airport.
On my sectional, I have this Air Defense Identification Zone. It is the end of US airspace before going over International waters. You won’t see this if you live in the middle of the US.
This is a latitude line (I still remember using “fatitude” from grade school because it goes around the earth like a stomach.
This is a longitude line on a sectional. You can see it marked at 73 degrees. The biggest problem I had when taking my written to say where something was located in degrees is that the half way mark would be 73’30” NOT 73’50” You need to think of it as a clock. The hash marks are in minutes out of 60 NOT 100 and that’s the biggest thing to remember when finding latitude and longitude. The hash mark for 1/2 way is always a bit longer than the rest.
This white line depicts the area that is in the Terminal Area Chart, which goes into more detail than a sectional chart. If you want a closer view of this area see the TAC.
This dashed magenta line define the magnetic variation for this area of the sectional. It is also called an isogonic line. This specific one is 15 degrees west. I like to use my E6B to confirm that west you add 15 to the True Course, and east you subtract is from True Course.
This black dashed line is pretty simple. It is the state line depicted on the chart. Here you can see the separation of Connecticut and New York. This one is over the water, but in other sections it will be over land.
This line shows a normal area over water that would be uncontrolled but controlled airspace has been extended to the line. It is used by my airspace for vectoring by ATC into JFK airport. It is considered Class E airspace.
This is a VOR-DME, it’s a more enhanced VOR and will also tell you the distance you are away from it.
This is a VORTAC. It’s a VOR and a TACAN together. TACAN is just used for military so a civilian pilot will be using the VOR/DME aspect of this NAVAID.
This is the information for any VOR/DME/VORTAC. It has the name, navigation frequency. The three letter identifier and the Morse code to confirm you have the right frequency. On the JFK, note the 122.1R – the “R” means the FSS receives on this frequency, they cannot transmit back to you. That’ll be on 115.9. On the other hand, see that 108.4 on the Teterboro (TEB) one is underlined? It means it has no voice capabilities, so you couldn’t transmit on it. The frequencies for TEB don’t have the R so that means those you can receive and transmit on them.
This is a NDB pictured without an airport (as above in the airport section). The information is similar to the VOR’s information. I’ve never used a NDB, and my plane does not have an ADF so can’t really go into the points of how to use this information on your ADF.
This is a stand alone VFR waypoint. They all have five letter identifiers (VPBRK – VP means it’s for VFR.) It is to be used as a supplemental navigation aid, not as a primary one. I’ve never used one as a check point yet.
Military VFR airway. The VR means it is VFR, and the light black line is the airway.
This is also a military VFR airway, but it is for IFR military traffic as denoted by the IR before the numbers (therefore, they aren’t looking for aircraft, you need to be on the lookout). Again, it is a light black line that denotes the airway. As a general rule, the higher the first number of the airway means it is low altitude. An easy way to remember that is think of it as a pyramid, smaller at the top, larger on the bottom. But again this is a general rule.
This is a Victor airway, this is used for civilian air traffic. It also says the radial the airway is on (052). It is important to know that these airways are 8 nautical miles wide – 4 nm on either side. It is controlled airspace (ATC is in charge) from 1200ft up to 17999ft. Above that Class A airspace begins and jet routes begin.
This symbol confused me at first. It is the intersection of airways, but sectionals don’t show all the airways which is why you only see only light blue line. You see only one airway when there are actually four intersecting here.
This is a Victor airway, but the box below with 90 in it. The 90 denotes the mileage between NAVAIDS on direct airways.
The parachute means that there are people parachuting frequently in this area. If you are talking to ATC they’ll give you a heads up, but be careful anyway.
This is to denote that there are gliders that operate in the area, another thing to look out for. Remember they have the right of way, unless you’re in distress.
Similar to the glider symbol, but notice this has an “H” instead of a “G.” It is saying there are hang gliders in the area so watch out for them.
These numbers (well, not these specifically) are all over sectional charts. They are telling you how high the highest obstacle is and the altitude you’ll pass 300ft over it safely. This area would be 7400MSL.
This is marking a wilderness area on the sectional. Stay above 2,000ft AGL when flying over this area.
This is the marking of a wildlife refuge. You can see the name of the refuge and the circle with the dots on the inside is the actual area of the wildlife refuge, stay above 2,000ft AGL when flying over this area.
This, specifically, are the Catskill Mountains. This is how mountain ranges look on a sectional chart. You can notice the lines that tell the shape of mountains and also the different colors, which signify different levels of terrain. Be aware when flying over this area and don’t hit any mountains!
This is a prohibited airspace. It’s the most restricted airspace. No aircraft is allowed in it, even with ATC clearance. You can see it can also expand and it is important to check the NOTAMs. It will be denoted by the blue marks and a “P”
This is a restricted airspace, and if you contact the controlling agency a certain number of hours beforehand you may be allowed into the airspace. The FAA restricts this airspace due to “the existence of unusual, often invisible, hazards to aircraft such as artillery firing, aerial gunnery, or guided missiles.” Make sure you get clearance or avoid this airspace for your own safety. It is denoted with those blue hash marks and “R”
This is a warning area, denoted with a “W” Warning areas are over normally over domestic or international waters. In this area, it contains activity that may be hazardous to nonparticipating aircraft. This marking is used to warn nonparticipating pilots.
This is a Military Operations Area. Military aircraft maybe operating within excess of 250 knots below 10,000ft. ATC will provide clearance or reroute for IFR traffic in the area. VFR traffic should call the nearest FSS within 100 miles for real time information about what is happening in the area. VFR pilots should exercise extreme caution and should contact the controlling agency for traffic advisories.