For official regulations, you should of course check the french AIP. I can't garantee that no mistakes were made here. This is NO official documentation.
In France, you will encounter classes A,C,D,E and G airspace. (Class B and F are not used here). What may surprise you a little, especially if you come from the USA, is that sometimes, with no official reason, just because the controller in charge wants it this way, C or D rated CTR or TMA become virtually class A. Which means that you won't get a clearance to enter them if you fly VFR. We will discuss it later, but first, let see how the French airspace is divided.
If you fly a general aviation ACFT as a private pilot, you're likely to fly rather under FL115.
Well let's see what happens under there.
First of all, under FL100, your speed may not exceed 250 kts, unless you're cleared by a controller.
It is also very much recommended to fly higher than 1500ft AGL, anywhere in France because under this height, you may face military jets flying at high speed and vey low level, even outside their protected training zones. In this case, they're supposed to be careful and check what comes in front of them, but when they fly at 500 kts.... One or two accidents occur each year, involving military jets and general aviation aircraft : planes or microlights.
Everywhere, and at any time, it is forbidden to fly under 500ft AGL. (But, of course, if you are taking off or landing.) Over some places like villages and cities, the minimum height rises up to 1600, 3300 and 5000ft AGL, depending on the size of the village/city. You will find this color coded information on 1/500000 charts.
There are 2 surfaces in the French airspace which will define the VMC rules and the altimeter settings and FL you must use.
1) The first one is 3000ftASFC everywhere. Depending on your flying above or under this surface, you will set your altimeter as follow
If you fly in an airspace where there is no published Transition Altitude (usually out of TMA, in G airspace)
In an airspace with a Transition Altitude use altitude (QNH) under the TA with the semi-circular and above the Transition Level Flight levels as usual. (You will probably be in touch with an ATC so he will tell you what to do.)
Note that the QFE giving height AAL is almost not used any longer in France.
Be carefull. If the pressure is lower than 1013, your real altitude is lower than the altitude indicated by your altimeter when you fly above this surface (since you set it up using 1013 instead of the real value). If you choose a low flight level, you may be dangerously close to the ground whereas your altimeter indicates a reassuring value. When visibility is poor, this can be VERY dangerous, and several pilots already lost their lifes in such accidents.
2) The second one is at 3000ftAMSL or 1000ft ASFC, whichever the highest.
VMC are not the same above and under this surface in F and G airspace.
You are not allowed to carry passengers if you haven't done at least 3 take off and landings in the last 90 days.
VFR on top
So VFR on top is allowed only if you fly ABOVE this second surface. Your aircraft must be equipped with at least a VOR receiver. It means that you may fly above clouds, even a layer of clouds. But beware. If you're not a IR pilot, you're not allowed to enter any cloud. Thus, to fly on top, you must have found a hole between clouds enabling you to climb over them, and you must be SURE to find a hole large enough for you to descend when you're near your destination. If you take off under a clear sky, but with a forecast of overcast wheather at your destination, don't fly ontop, because you will probably be unable to go down safely then. If I may give you an advice, don't fly on top if the forecast at your destination is more cloudy than 4/8. Don't fly on top in a single engined aircraft over mountaneous ground, if you know that mountains' top may be in the clouds. Imagine what would happen if you had to do a forced landing.
Under FL115, French airspace, unlike otherwise stated, is rated G. Of course, there are a lot of classes C, D and A TMA and CTR which you will discover on the charts. Everywhere, it is HIGHLY recommended to turn on one's XPDR in C mode and to squawk 7000 if you fly VFR. (That's French for 1200, if you come from the Wild West...) When you enter a controlled airspace, you will be given a new squawk. When you leave it, even if the controller tells you that you can turn your XPDR to stand by, squawk back to 7000.
Officially, the only Class A area is the Paris area. There, you will have to fly very low if you're VFR. There are several routes crossing this A CTR and open to VFR though, mainly to and from le Bourget airport. Its CTR is D rated and enclosed in the Class A CTR. But, due to 9/11th, some of them are currently closed, and you will have to fill a flight plan to use the others. There are several airports around Paris which can be used by VFR pilots however, but none close to the city itself. In my opinion, Paris is not the best place to go flying your aircraft. Come back an other time seated in a airliner, and instead, use this time your aircraft to discover breathtaking views all over France, avoiding this area.
Several areas with C or D airspace are known for refusing VFR either almost permanently, or for long periods during the day, or to accept them under very restrictive conditions (such as ACFT going to airfields included in these controlled areas only. If you want to cross them, you get no clearance and have to fly AROUND!)
These problems arise often around
Of course, you may be lucky there, or experience the same problems somewhere else. But these places are well known for this reason.
We don't have ATZ and such exotic controlled areas any longer in France.
Apart from the controlled airspace, as in your country for sure, we have prohibited, dangerous or restricted areas. You will find them on your charts.
In the end of 2001, several temporarily restricted zones have been created around large cities such as Lyon, or industrial plants such as nuclear power plants. They will not disappear. Since april 2010, 19 of them have become permanent prohibited zones (LF-P). 18 more are likely to turn the same way in the next few monthes.
A lot of new restrictions have been issued since the end of 2002. Nuclear plants are now surrounded by temporarily restricted -read prohibited- zones, (ZRT). To have all the details about these ZRT, use this link to the SIA web page. Several VFR routes crossing the Paris class A airspace are closed. To fly to or from several airports, even very little ones, (Cannes Mandelieu, Strasbourg Neuhof, Lyon Bron, Le Bourget, Rouen, Lille Marcq en Baroeul), you have to warn by fax or phone the military centers in charge of their areas before you set off that you will go there. You're supposed to give your aircraft registration, the time when you leave, your departure place, and your route. Phones and fax numbers are provided in the relevant Notams. Again, check them. (Phones : Drachenbronn : 03 88 94 58 03, Lyon 04 78 14 65 21, Nice : 04 92 41 25 21)
If you don't want to experience a thrilling opportunity of a formation flight with a mirage 2000, it would be wise not to infringe these restrictions. Some areas are even armed with ground to air missiles. Better not to get lost these days.
I just got an answer from the DGAC about this issue. (June 2010). It appears that you don't need a S mode transponder to fly VFR in France. This should remain true at least until 2014. However, new aircraft equipped with a transponder from 2011 on will have to have a S mode transponder to be certified.
Several controlled areas can't be entered if your aircraft is not equipped with an XPDR giving your FL (C mode), though. This is especially true in the newly rated C airspaces.
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