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VFR Flight Following 101: How, When, and Why to Use It

VFR Flight Following 101: How, When, and Why to Use It

Apr 9, 2021

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.”

Flight following, sometimes also called “Flight Advisories,” 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:

  • Safety alerts
  • Traffic advisories
  • Limited radar vectoring
  • Sequencing at some locations. 

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 towards 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:

  • Immediate communication if you have a non-comm-failure emergency (you’ll already be on frequency with ATC)
  • Search and rescue can immediately commence if you go missing (vs. waiting till 30 minutes after your expected landing time w/ a VFR flight plan).

It is important to note that with flight following, you are not handing over any of your pilot responsibilities to ATC. You must avoid other aircraft in the area, comply with FARs, and stay in visual meteorological conditions. Although ATC can help (and often does), you are PIC and responsible for your aircraft.

How to Request Flight Following With the Airport

If you are flying out of a Class C or Class D airport, 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. 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:

You:  “Palomar Ground, Cessna 9042 Quebec, with Request”
Ground Control: “ Cessna 9042 Quebec, go ahead”
You: 9042 Quebec, is a Cessna 172, at Western Flight would like to request VFR flight following to Romeo Mike November.”
Ground Control: “9042 Quebec, remain clear of San Diego Class Bravo airspace, departure frequency 127.3, Squawk 1234”
You: “9042 Quebec, remain clear of San Diego Class Bravo airspace, departure frequency 127.3, Squawk 1234”
Ground Control: “Readback correct, are you ready to taxi?”

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.

How to Request Flight Following From the Air

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)

You: “So Cal Departure, November 9042 Quebec: VFR, with request.”
So Cal Departure: “9042 Quebec: Say request.”
You: “9042 Quebec is SkyHawk, 5 miles east of Palomar, 2,500 feet. Climbing to 4,500. Request VFR Flight Following to Ontario”
So Cal Departure: “9042 Quebec: Squawk 4231 and Ident.”
You:(Set your transponder to 4231, press the Identify Button), and say “4231 and Ident, 9042 Quebec”
So Cal Departure: “42 Quebec: Radar Contact, 6 mi. East of Palomar, at 2,500. Traffic at your 11 o’clock, 4 mi. North Bound, Altitude indicates 3,000.”

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.