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Adventure: s.f. bay tours

The Golden Gate Bridge

If you've ever had the fortune of flying into or out of San Francisco International (SFO) as a passenger on an airliner and enjoyed grabbing a glimpse of the city's buildings or the Golden Gate Bridge, then this one's for you! Now, imagine being able to fly just a thousand feet above the tallest buildings or the Golden Gate Bridge, and this is what the "Bay Tour" is all about, up close and personal!

I've conducted numerous Bay Tours over the last five or so years, from a variety of Bay Area airports, such as Oakland (OAK), Livermore (LVK), and Reid-Hillview (RHV) in San Jose. From wherever you start, the idea is still the same — fly to San Francisco! The routing is just different. Oakland is by far the closest, time between takeoff to tour is only about ten minutes. And of course, San Jose is the furthest, but you do get to travel up the entire peninsula and very close to San Francisco International (SFO)!

San Francisco, Looking down Market Street

We are very fortunate to be able to fly small airplanes generally unrestricted over a beautiful city like San Francisco, especially in this day and age. This is made possible, in part, by the configuration of the airspace over this part of the city.


Surrounding San Francisco International (SFO) and extending for a radius of between 7 nm (~8 miles; ~13 km) and 30 nm (~35 miles; ~56 km ), depending on altitude, is a special class of controlled airspace (known as "Class B," usually pronounced "Class Bravo" in pilot geek speak) which usually exists around the busiest of airports, for controlling separation of arriving and departing airliner traffic. And by nm, I mean "nautical miles" not "nanometers" ;)

Landing at OAK (Oakland), facing S.F.

Small airplanes can indeed fly in this Class B airspace, and we often do, when flying up and down the peninsula between San Francisco and San Jose, for example. However, all aircraft flying in Class B airspace is either already under air traffic control instructions (e.g. commercial airliners on an "instrument flight plan"), or has requested and received permission or clearance to enter (that's right, Clarence) to fly in that airspace. However, when flying in this airspace, it's "all business," and airplanes are basically given vectors (you got it, Victor) and altitude restrictions. You can't just dink around.

Abeam SFO during a "Class B" Transition

There are other classes of airspace that surround smaller airports, for example separate Class C airspaces surround both Oakland (OAK) and San Jose International (SJC), and most bay area airports do have control towers and are surrounded by Class D airspace. So there are potentially many airspaces that a pilot might negotiate or at least be aware of when conducting a Bay Tour. But the Class B is the most prevalent one that needs to be dealt with in one way or another (i.e. get cleared through, or avoid completely).

Now, the good news is, this Class B airspace extends to the surface only when quite close to SFO, specifically 7 nm (~8 miles; ~13 km) on the north end. The northernmost tip of San Francisco as well as the Golden Gate Bridge are far enough north of SFO to be clear of this airspace radius.

Bay Tour GPS Tracks (facing South East)

This area is near a different tier of Class B airspace. At this location it starts at 3,000 feet above sea level and extends upwards until 10,000 feet. So, flying at or above 3,000' at this location will require a Class B clearance, but flying lower you can still, to some degree, just fly around.

Even though it is technically legal to not even be talking with Air Traffic Control (ATC) when flying outside of the Class B airspace (and C and D), it is still a good idea, especially when doing a bay tour. Even if not being provided separation services, ATC still has you on their radar (literally!) and they can provide radar advisories or "flight following" if their workload permits, alerting you of other air traffic. And it's a good idea because on some days, there can be numerous pilots flying the bay tour at the same time, just flying around. Swapping paint with any of them may just ruin your day. ATC can provide an additional set of eyes, but it is still the ultimate responsibility of the pilot to "see and avoid" old-school style.

Traffic in Sight. Not an F-18.

I did have the pleasure of flying a Bay Tour once, early one September morning, and had ATC call out some other "traffic" to my attention — a pair of F-18's had departed Oakland a few minutes after us and wanted to swing by and also do a Bay Tour "swoop" on their way down south. Too cool, but alas, no pictures.

Transamerica Pyramid

The FAA also has a "1,000 foot rule," which is a regulation that, except when taking off or landing, aircraft must maintain an altitude of 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal radius of 2,000 feet of the aircraft when over any congested area of a city (or town, settlement, or open air assembly of persons). How do you assemble people? Piece by piece, I guess. But anyway, that means the pilot must know the altitude of the landmarks he or she intends to fly over, in order to maintain this separation. In feet. Or 304.8 meters if you prefer.

Don't think 1,000 feet is close enough to see anything? Well, at that altitude and a good telephoto lens, you can get some really tight shots that look like you are much closer! You can be safe and legal but make it look like "Danger" is your middle name! Yeah, baby!

So, with the Class B airspace not starting until 3,000' above some of the coolest parts of the city to view coupled with the interesting landmarks rising to only 800' - 1000' or so, combine to give an area of 2,000 vertical feet to use freely on a bay tour. Freely, but safely of course, Mr. Powers... I will always appreciate the privilege of being able to do a Bay Tour, and I never take it for granted. You never know when some crazy nut job will do something stupid resulting in far-reaching ramifications.


Angel Island

The Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Fisherman's Wharf, Coit Tower, Bay Bridge, Transamerica Pyramid, City Hall, AT&T (Giants) Ballpark, SFO Airport, Candlestick Park. Where to begin? Where to end?

The Bay Tour provides a plethora of landmarks to explore. And many of them are in that magical space beneath the Class B airspace.


I've got a couple of slide shows devoted to Bay Tour aerial shots, you can see them here, for daytime shots or here, for shots at dusk.