The Whys and Hows of VFR Flight Following

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Flying VFR without talking to anybody is still legal most places, but it's the aviation equivalent of living in the wilderness with no electricity or running water. Most of the time, for most of us, asking ATC for VFR flight following is safer and more civilized. Here's a review of the benefits, procedures, phraseology, and gotchas of radar traffic information service.

TrainingRadar traffic information service — commonly known as VFR flight following — is a service provided by air traffic control (ATC) and available to all VFR pilots which can enhance your flying safety. While receiving flight following, you'll be in radio contact with a radar controller at a Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) or Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC). This article provides information about the service, describes how you can benefit from it, and what your responsibilities are under flight following.

ATC Radar displayThe purpose of the service is for controllers to issue traffic information to pilots, based on radar-displayed targets, concerning other aircraft in their proximity or that will intersect their flight path. Once a pilot is alerted to the location of other air traffic, he's in a better position to take appropriate action if the need arises. By talking to air traffic control, you will get a better mental picture of the overall air traffic situation you are flying through.

In addition to traffic advisories, you can take advantage of other services while receiving flight following. Controllers provide "safety alerts" if they judge that an aircraft is at an altitude that places it in unsafe proximity to terrain, obstructions, or other aircraft. They will use the phraseology "traffic alert" or "low altitude alert" followed by a description of the hazard and a suggestion for avoiding it.

You may also request radar vectors for navigational assistance, or for separation from other air traffic. It's important to note that you must request radar vectors; in most cases, controllers can't initiate radar vectors for VFR aircraft.

While using flight following, chances are you'll be able to fly a more direct course to your destination because you won't have to deviate around some types of airspace. You can fly through class B or C airspace once you receive proper clearance or authorization from ATC, and controllers can clear you through restricted areas in real-time if they know they are not being used.

If something goes wrong

ATC CommunicationsPerhaps the most reassuring benefit of flight following is the knowledge that you'll receive immediate assistance if you experience an emergency situation. Since you're already on-frequency with an ATC facility, you can request vectors to the nearest airport or you can alert ATC to your position if it's necessary for you to make an off-airport emergency landing. In either case, ATC can get emergency response services in motion immediately.

Contrast this with what happens if you simply file a VFR flight plan. No help will be on the way until a search is initiated 30 minutes after the estimated time of arrival at your destination airport, and even then it may take many hours or even days before search-and-rescue finds you.

In addition to the added safety of using flight following, you'll get excellent experience using the radio and interacting with ATC. Listen to the phraseology the controllers and professional pilots use, and incorporate it into your own radio vocabulary. You'll build good radio techniques you'll need later when you progress to advanced flying ratings or a professional pilot career.

It's important to understand that while under flight following, you do not delegate any of you responsibilities as pilot in command to ATC. You are still responsible for seeing and avoiding other aircraft, remaining in visual flight conditions, and complying with the FARs. The controllers are not going to fly the airplane for you. But they can offer a great deal of assistance, especially if you get lost or run into adverse weather or encounter some unanticipated problem.

Doing your homework

Limited data blockYou will need at least a radio and a transponder to obtain flight following. The requirement for a radio is self-evident. The transponder isn't an absolute, cast-in-stone requirement, but in most cases ATC will not give you flight following if you don't have a transponder. Transponders allow the ATC flight data computer to positively identify your aircraft by displaying a data block next to its radar target on the controller's screen. The data block displays your tail number, aircraft type, groundspeed, controller-entered remarks (such as your route of flight), and your altitude if your aircraft is equipped with a Mode C transponder. Mode C is required if you're operating in class C airspace or within 30 nm of a primary airport surrounded by class B airspace.

The Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) is your bible for radio communication with ATC. Make certain to use the standardized phraseology in the AIM's Pilot-Controller Glossary whenever you communicate with controllers. After a while, you'll begin to see that you say the same thing in the same sequence, in response to what the controllers are saying. Think before you key the microphone, and know what you're going to say before you say it.

To request flight following services, you first need to know the appropriate ATC frequency. If you're departing from an airport with an operating control tower, you can ask the tower for the correct frequency to use. At a non-towered airport, you can sometimes contact Flight Service and ask them for the frequency. Alternatively, you can look up your departure airport in the Airport Facility Directory (AFD) or other airport directory, look in the communications section, and find the frequency of the approach-departure control or ARTCC serving that airport. ARTCC sector frequencies also appear on IFR enroute charts. In any case, you should have the appropriate ATC frequency available before you take off.

Talking the talk

After takeoff, and after you have changed from tower or advisory frequency, change to the departure or center frequency and listen. Wait for a few moments to make sure you're not going to interrupt someone else's transmission. When you're ready to transmit, state the name of the facility you're calling, your aircraft type, and full callsign:

Albuquerque Center, Cherokee 321SH.

Center will acknowledge by saying:

Cherokee 321SH go ahead.

Respond with your callsign, aircraft type and equipment suffix, position and altitude, where you're going, and that you're requesting flight following; for example:

Cherokee 1SH is a PA28/U, five miles south of Eloy airport, 5500 feet, VFR to Tucson International, request flight following.

ATC will then issue you a transponder code, radar identify you, and give you the nearest current altimeter setting. From that point onward you're receiving traffic advisories and you'll be handed off to other ATC sectors as you pass through them during your flight. If you take off from an airport served by a control tower within class B or C airspace, you will be issued a departure control radio frequency and transponder code before you take off. After you're airborne and have established radio contact with departure control, you can request flight following from them in the same manner stated above.

While receiving flight following, it's your responsibility to remain on the frequency you were issued unless you tell the controller you want to cancel flight following or the controller terminates your service. If you change frequencies without notifying the controller, he may assume you've lost your radio or that you're experiencing difficulty.

Workload permitting

Radar ATC FacilityFlight following is an additional service provided above and beyond what controllers are required to provide. ATC's first priority is separating and sequencing of IFR traffic, and VFR flight following is provided on a "workload permitting" basis. So don't expect a very busy controller to take you on. If you call a number of times and are not acknowledged when a controller is busy, yes, he may be ignoring you (or your transmitter is dead). Use some judgment to decide when not to call. If the controller sounds as busy as a one-armed paperhanger, asking for VFR flight following is probably a waste of time. Consider waiting five or ten minutes until the frequency is less congested or you fly into another controller's radar sector.

Controllers may terminate flight following services to you if they become too busy or if they can't hand you off to the next ATC sector. If this is the case, you may receive a transmission like this:

Cherokee 1SH, radar service terminated, squawk 1200, for further flight following try Los Angeles Center on 125.3.

You're now no longer receiving flight following and you've got to dial in the new frequency and request services all over again. The next sector may take you, or they may not, depending on how busy they are.

Handoffs

When you receive instructions to change to a new frequency, read back the new frequency to the controller before you change the frequency selector. This will allow him to correct you if you didn't hear the new frequency correctly. It's a good idea to keep a "frequency log." Simply write down the frequency every time you're issued a new one. If you switch frequencies and are unable to make contact with anyone, you can use your frequency log to find the last known channel on which you were talking to ATC. If you don't have flip-flop radios, or if the flip-flop display dies on you, your frequency log could save the day.

When checking in on the new frequency, make sure to state your altitude so that the controller can verify your aircraft's mode C readout on his screen. For example:

Los Angeles Center, Cherokee 321SH, VFR at one zero thousand five hundred.

If you do not do this, the controller will have to ask you to verify your altitude, resulting in extra radio transmissions. If it's not too busy, no big deal, but if you're in a busy terminal area, you're tying up valuable radio time.

Phraseology

As stated before, using proper radio phraseology is very important. Standard language has been developed over the years so that key phrases have unambiguous meaning. You should know the key phrases and terms in the Pilot-Controller Glossary section of the AIM. Some commonly used terms:

  • Affirmative: yes
  • Negative: no
  • Wilco: I have received your message, understand it and will comply with it.
  • Roger: I have received all of your last transmission.

Note that roger is not synonymous with affirmative or wilco. If you answer with roger as the response to a question or direction from ATC, a sharp controller will query you to find out what you really mean, because you have not answered his question or responded to his directions. For example, the proper response to:

Cherokee 1SH, do you have the field in sight?

would be:

Cherokee 1SH, affirmative.

Also, don't think you sound cool by using CB or "good ole' boy" phraseology. It's not correct for aviation usage and it's not professional.

It's also important to use standard phraseology when responding to traffic advisories. If you receive a traffic call and see the traffic, state:

Cherokee 1SH, traffic in sight.

If not, say:

Cherokee 1SH, negative contact.

These two phrases are meant to sound different so that they are not confused with each other. Don't use phrases such as "tally-ho" or "no joy." It's not the Battle of Britain and you're probably not a Spitfire pilot.

Remember to communicate your intentions and requests to the controllers. If you have a request, don't be afraid to ask. If you can't seem to locate an unfamiliar airfield, don't wait until you've flown over it, hoping that maybe the controller will guess that you could use a vector. In this case, don't be bashful to make a clear language transmission like:

Approach, Cherokee 1SH, request a vector to Flabob Airport.

Almost as important as what the controllers are saying, listen to the other pilots on the frequency. You can pick up information on what the weather is like along your route of flight, what the density of the traffic is like, and where other aircraft are in relation to you. You'll also learn a lot by listening to their phraseology. If you plan to go on to an instrument rating or other advanced ratings, you can learn to sound like a pro by emulating the way other pilots speak on the radio. You may also hear some good examples of what you don't want to sound like. Regardless of whether or not you plan on progressing past VFR private pilot, if you sound like a professional pilot on the radio, chances are you'll get better service out of ATC and operate more efficiently in the system.

Flight following checklist

To summarize, here are some important things to remember to successfully use flight following:

  • Study the AIM: know proper radio phraseology.

  • Preflight planning: in addition to thorough navigational planning, gather all of the approach control and center frequencies you'll need during your flight.

  • When you key the mike: know what you're going to say before you say it; listen before you key-up so that you don't step on someone else's transmission.

  • Fly the airplane: you're the PIC, not the controller!

  • Ask for what you want: controllers aren't mind readers.

  • Listen: learn from pilots and controllers how to speak on the radio.

Have a good flight!