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What are the differences between flying in Europe vs. the USA?

Hi all,

If everything is working out well, I will get my piggyback license next month and will fly a few hours in the USA after a checkout.

I read there will also be a theoretical part on the checkout, so I want to prepare myself (and not waste a lot of time on the checkout), by googling and reading some trip reports, but about this part I do not find a lot information (I find pieces, but not a nice review).

Since I don’t have a lot of time and so much to do, my question is: what are the big differences between Europe and USA (in specific for PPL, VFR flying, that I should know about?
- I know already there are no VFR approach charts or VFR approach procedures
- Controllers gives information more spontaneously, there is flight following
- Airports are open 24 hours a day and 7 days a week.
- I should download Foreflight
- how about flightplans VFR? (I use them a lot in Europe, but I don’t think it is common in the USA VFR?)
- …

I know here are USA pilots, and also a lot of people with the piggyback license or FAA papers… so, what should I know to fly safe in the USA? What are the main differences I should be aware of? Any tips?


It’s difficult to judge what might be useful to you, it sounds like you already know the basics for self study, but I think I’d advise learning US uncontrolled airport procedures as one important thing. There are a great many airports with nobody around, self serve credit card fuel, perhaps an ASOS or AWOS frequency (automated ATIS weather basically), using standardized procedure for joining the traffic pattern (circuit), landing and departing. It’s certainly not complicated, far from it, but maybe a little reading might help. Forty five degree midfield pattern entries and that sort of thing…

Learn how to read a Sectional Chart, as those are what you’ll be using for VFR flight, including with Foreflight which BTW I much recommend. Terminal Area Charts (TAC) are sectionals blown up by a factor of two, with clearer info for busy areas. Foreflight switches between the two automatically depending on zoom.

Other miscellaneous stuff: there’s only one kind of altimeter setting (QNH), which is called ‘altimeter setting’ Few pilots in the US know Q-codes, so don’t use them. Flight levels start at 18,000 feet, so are mostly for airliners, and not used for VFR. You get your altimeter setting occasionally from any available source (many of which are automated) as you fly along, and thereby keep your altimeter accurate. For that and other reasons picking up ATIS prior to your first call to an airport tower is expected, every time. When you depart an ATC controlled airport VFR you do not need to get clearance for frequency change, once you leave their area you no longer need to talk to them, so just change frequency. Air-to-Air frequency is 122.75 and is used a lot by students, banner tow pilots etc in busy areas. VFR squawk is 1200.

Airspace below 18,000 is Class B or below, and outside of Restricted Areas is generally available to VFR if you know how to ask, even if it’s sometimes easier to go over, under or around. You can fly VFR in most areas up to 18,000 with or without ATC contact, your choice, the airspace away from busy areas is mostly Class E with good ATC radar coverage.

On a more practical level, where will you be flying? In the western US density altitude is a very important factor and you’ll need to know how to lean the engine for takeoff as well as understand the dramatic effect on climb rate.

In the US, VFR flight plans are really only useful today (IMHO) when you’re in really remote areas.

Last Edited by Silvaire at 19 Aug 05:08

I flew there briefly (for 2 weeks) in 2006. It all went pretty well but I found some of the controllers (at the smaller airports – Phoenix KPHX was fine) difficult to understand

I would also check out the various websites US pilots use to get wx. I was able to use the usual ones when I was there (most European free wx sites use GFS anyway) but the examiner wanted me to use 1-800-WX-BRIEF which delivered a verbal (and to me almost useless; I use images/wx charts) briefing, at 150kt But then I found that even back then most US pilots used the internet, not WX-BRIEF…

Shoreham EGKA, United Kingdom

Vieke wrote:

What are the main differences I should be aware of?

Another thing: “Implied clearances” in class C and D airspace for VFR. You only need established two-way radio communication with ATC to enter class C and D airspace. So no explicit clearance is needed, but you must follow any instructions ATC gives you.

ESKC (Uppsala/Sundbro), Sweden

Re – implied clearance in the US: I climbed into controlled airspace departing KTMB while on flight following (so established two way RT) and had even specifically requested an altitude inside controlled airspace. I got yelled at all the same because I didn’t get a specific clearance to climb into the controlled airspace….

Flight plans are filed with FSS (Flight Service Stations). There is a country-wide 800 number to reach them. You will always be connected to the FSS closest to your phone’s area code. If you phone in your flight plan, you will be given a thorough briefing (weather and NOTAMs) and can ask additional questions (is it still the case?)

ATC know nothing about VFR flight plans. You open and close the flight plan with the FSS (call sign “xx radio”), or by phone. FSS will give you en-route weather. You can provide them (and are encouraged to do so) with PIREP. On the sectionals you will find the ID and frequency of the closest FSS RCO (remote communication outlet). You can often join FSS by radio on the ground.

Many VORs transmit (severe) weather observations and PIREPs (HIWAS).

Try to ask for a tour of a radar facility. They used to be very forthcoming with such requests.

Get the A/FD for your areas of flight (Airport/Facility Directory). That’s all you will need in terms of airport documentation (in addition to sectionals). Forget about the VAC – there are none. Navigation is really easy. Most places you can determine the boundaries of controlled airspace using a DME or GPS distance. Controlled airspace is circular around the airport. No real need for ForeFlight which can be more of a distraction than anything else.

Review at least FAR Parts 61 and 91. You will require a BFR and you will certainly get questions about the FARs.

UNICOM is a sort of AFIS light, or airfield ground station.

There is no radio station license (for a/c remaining within the US 48 contiguous states) or noise certificate. There is no requirement to have a journey log, and the a/c you rent will have no such thing.

FBOs will (mostly) waive any fees if you purchase fuel. They will even lend you a courtesy car for a ride into town.

Enjoy your trip!

Last Edited by Aviathor at 19 Aug 07:04

Was it class B? Before entering B airspace, you need to explicitly hear the magic words “N12345, you are cleared to enter bravo airspace.”

Except in Las Vegas, they seemed rather surprised when I asked back after a clearance that would have us enter B airspace. But it was confirmed later by my instructor that ATC can be different in Vegas.

there is number of good interactive trainings at (even for non-members). None of them is focusing on differences but they are pretty good overview of various topics. Definitely worth looking at them before you take-off in the US. The ground part of flight review (it can be combined with airplane checkout at the flight school but make sure you have it in the logbook) will not cover all general principles.


I would suggest to review the AIM. I don’t mean read it cover to cover, but it has a tremendous amount of practical info and and is THE reference for US operations.

LSZK, Switzerland

This and this (a couple of PDFs found around the internet years ago, of unknown origin, and there are others, mostly produced for/by airline pilots) may be worth a quick read for FAA v. ICAO differences. Some of it may be out of date.

Shoreham EGKA, United Kingdom
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