If you’ve ever seen a sectional chart, at first they are very complex and confusing. Thankfully, with practice and time, you can understand what any symbol represents and how to find more information about it.
When learning to fly, one of the first things in your training process includes learning how to read a VFR (Visual Flight Rules) Sectional Chart. These are a type of map used in aviation that shows obstacles, airspace, airports, radio/navigation frequencies, and so much more.
Identifying Largely Populated Areas
Take a look at this small section of the Richmond, VA area on a sectional chart.
On this map, you can identify Richmond as the large yellow area on the left (West) side of the map. Yellow areas indicate that, while flying at night, you will be able to easily identify the area as Richmond (or anywhere else) on a sectional chart.
Richmond International Airport (RIC) is located in the center of the two magenta rings. The blue triangular shape in the center is the orientation of the runways so you can visualize how the airfield is set-up.
Just like in our other article, How Airspace and Cake Have Something in Common, you can see that RIC sits inside Class C airspace. RIC also has a VOR/DME (Very High Frequency Omni-Directional Range/Distance Measuring Equipment) which is the blue ring pointed at by blue arrows above. The white arrow points at the type of navigational aid (a VOR/DME in this one) and the green arrow points to which Flight Service Station (FSS) controls that specific area. In this case you would contact Leesburg.
Airport Specific Information
Above we have the Richmond Executive Airport (FCI) that is located just to the Southwest of the Richmond Class C airspace. Each airport will have its abbreviated information somewhere near it.
- White arrow: This indicates the name of the airport and what you would call your traffic pattern announcements as.
- Grey Arrow: This indicates the airport has an AWOS (Automated Weather Observation System) on the airfield that transmits weather on the frequency listed beside it (128.625).
- Green Arrow: This indicates the airport field elevation above sea level (236′ MSL).
- Teal Arrow: This points to the ‘*L’ which means the airport has pilot-controlled runway lighting. To use this when flying at night, remember the three different clicking sequences when clicking your radio transmit button.
- 3 clicks for Low Intensity
- 5 clicks for Medium Intensity
- 7 clicks for High Intensity
- Blue Arrow: This is pointing to the length of the usable runway. Some runways have unusable sections such as displaced thresholds commonly meant to protect the Earth’s surface from jet-blast erosion. In this case, FCI has a runway with 5,500′ available for takeoff/landing.
- Yellow Arrow: This points at a star on top of the airport’s magenta circle. The star indicates there is a rotating beacon that is active from sunset to sunrise to aid pilots in finding the airport at night. The three squares attached to the airport’s circle indicate that fuel and services are offered at the airport. At FCI, Dominion Aviation is a full-service FBO (Fixed-base Operator) that fuels and provides maintenance and services to pilots and passengers.
- Red Arrow: This arrow points at ‘123.05 C’ which is the airport’s CTAF (Common Traffic Advisory Frequency) which is used to communicate your intentions and positions around the airport to other pilots when the airport does not have a control tower or the tower is closed.
Rare and Unusual Symbols
In some spots on the sectional chart, you may see things that don’t explain themselves and that are difficult to find more details on. Below are some and the explanations behind them.
Above, there are symbols that look like wind turbines. Well, that’s exactly what they are, and this indicates a wind turbine farm in Northeastern North Carolina. However, what is that word below them? The word “OBJECTIONABLE” which is written in magenta-colored letters indicates there is a private-use airport that conflicts with the airspace and sometimes airports around it. In some cases, there will be a box or symbol that states what is occurring there that interferes with the airspace around it, like skydiving.
Here, however, it just states it is objectionable. Why? Objectionable is a chart symbol and term used to alert pilots there is something unusual at that airport that takes place. They are seen next to airports that have a circled ‘R’ or just show an empty circle. These airports are private and normally unpaved, dirt/grass airstrips.
More Common Symbols
You are very likely to see these symbols, depending on where you are flying.
- White Arrow: This arrow shows two crossing pickaxes which means there is a visible rock quarry there. They are normally very large holes in the ground, sometimes miles-wide, and may have very blue water in them.
- Green Arrow: This points at the symbol for the center of a VOR (Flat Rock VOR in this case)
- Yellow Arrow: This shows a power-line with a small line on both sides of it, indicating there is a high-wire power-line that runs in that direction and is visible from lower altitudes.
- Grey Arrow: This indicates very high towers, typically cell phone towers, that also have lights that flash during the day and pulse red at night. In parenthesis is the actual height above ground and above it is the height respective to Mean Sea Level (MSL).
- Purple Arrow: This points to a train track, marking where you should easily be able to see the tracks running West to East into Richmond.
- Red Arrow: This arrow points to a magenta flag that is above the Swift Creek Reservoir. These flags mark easily identifiable landmarks during the day, such as lakes, lighthouses, rock quarries, etc.
- Teal Arrow: This points at a small, black square on the chart. These squares are accompanied by a short description such as golf courses, warehouses, tank farms, etc. These are also easy to spot during the day when flying.
Still need some help understanding VFR Sectionals? Watch this video by FLY8MA!
These are some of the symbols and explanations of different VFR Sectional Chart characteristics. Hopefully you learned something out of this and can apply it to your flight planning in the future. Join us next week for a feature article on Republic Airways First Officer, John Doyon, and his backstory of how he got started in aviation as a child to where he is now.