December 30, 2022
VFR flight following is officially described as Radar Traffic Information Service in Paragraph 4-1-15 of the FAA’s Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), which notes:
“Pilots receiving this service are advised of any radar target observed on the radar display which may be in such proximity to the position of their aircraft or its intended route of flight that it warrants their attention. This service is not intended to relieve the pilot of the responsibility for continual vigilance to see and avoid other aircraft.”
So, what is flight following? It is sometimes also called “Flight Advisories” and is an excellent tool for your pilot toolbox, especially on local flights with passengers.
And unlike your handheld radio, your fancy noise-canceling headset, and iPad with Foreflight, flight following doesn’t cost you anything.
Flight following provides several key benefits:
Flight following and a VFR Flight Plan are two different and independent things.
To open a flight plan you would contact a Flight Service Station (FSS), and once the flight plan is opened, you will not talk to the FSS until you have to close it.
With flight following on the other hand, you may be talking to ATC during the entire flight. Note that getting flight following does not open your flight plan. You still have to contact an FSS to open your flight plan.
Although flight following is NOT an IFR flight plan, it is a helpful extra set of eyes for you, which may serve as the last backup to save you from “airspace busting,” such as inadvertently flying into Bravo airspace.
Or, ATC may give you a heads-up if you’re flying toward the wrong airport. If you are flying into the Los Angeles area headed to Hawthorne airport and begin lining up for Compton airport, ATC may point this out and give you helpful vectors to your destination.
Flight following has some secondary benefits for emergencies as well:
It is important to note that with flight following, you are not handing over any of your pilot responsibilities to ATC.
You must still:
Although ATC can help (and often does), you are PIC and responsible for your aircraft.
If you are flying out of a Class C or Class D airport, for a VFR flight following request, you can usually request flight following with the local ground control. Because flight following is voluntary, if the airspace is extremely busy, controllers may tell you they are unable to provide.
Also, note that some airports may not provide this service or may not provide it on the ground control frequency. You can find the ground control frequency in your Foreflight app or in the airport chart supplement.
Example (on ground at towered airport)
Follow the standard format, what you are, who you are, what you need:
If you are comfortable and familiar with radio communications, you can request your taxi and flight following at the same time. Once you take off and change frequencies, ATC will maintain radar contact and seamlessly provide flight following.
Pay attention for handoffs to other frequencies, and always respond promptly to ATC calls to your tail number.
If you are already in the air, you can ask departure control or “center” for flight following.
You can find this frequency on your chart or by referencing the departure control frequency on Foreflight. Always be courteous and polite, especially if you can sense the controller is very busy.
Example (in the air with ARTCC or TRACON)
Flight following is not something you will be tested on your PPL check ride (although you may choose to use it on a checkride).
Taking the time to familiarize yourself with how to use flight following can be very valuable, making you a safer and more proficient pilot.
Try out the phraseology for Flight Following on the PlaneEnglish ARSim, under VFR > Flight Following. With three available lessons and tens of scenarios, you can practice this important and helpful service on many airspaces and airports and be comfortable and confident using it in the air.
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PlaneEnglish created this blog to provide aspiring and current pilots a resource for all things related to aviation radio communication.
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