What is Flight Following and Should You Use It?

See and avoid.

Flight following, also known as Basic Radar Service for VFR Aircraft, gives you:

  1. Safety alerts.
  2. Traffic advisories.
  3. Limited radar vectoring when requested by the pilot.
  4. Sequencing at locations where procedures have been established for this purpose and/or when covered by a LOA.

That’s from the FAA’s JO 7110.65S (Change 1,) the regulation covering air traffic control procedures.

Flight following is completely voluntary. You are never required to use it and an air traffic controller is not required to provide it if he or she is too busy handling IFR aircraft. If you like to tool around the countryside in your airplane with the radio volume turned off, more power to you, as long as you remain clear of controlled airspace.

Here comes the “however.” However, flight following can add a layer of safety to your flight, especially when you are flying through areas with a lot of air traffic. Instead of dodging traffic and terrain using nothing but your Mark 1 eyeball, you can have the (almost) all-seeing eyes of ATC radar covering your back, (and your front, and your sides.) No sense going into battle “alone, unarmed, and unafraid,” when you can have an 800-pound gorilla at your side for absolutely free.

Actually, flight following is not completely free. We can talk about why it’s not, next time.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

The Aeroplanist June 13, 2013 at 6:04 pm

This service will remain “voluntary” only so long as not too many pilots use it. Then, since it is so populr, FAA will make it mandatory. Afer that, controllers will want increased pay for the increased work-load. At that point it will be mandatory and will require a fee.

That’s the way with ALL federal programs: create a dependency, then with so many people using thie popular nes nervice, faa tells us that for safety reasons, we all have to use it. There are dozens of government additions to our over-regulated lives brought about in just that manner.

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JeffKanarish June 13, 2013 at 8:02 pm

And so, you propose what as an alternative?

Jeff

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Maxx July 14, 2016 at 7:23 am

Great website, and info, though, I do have one question as I’m not so familiar with using ATC en-route too much. If you have a VFR flight following with a controller and you want to get an en-route weather update from flight service, how would you go about doing this proper? Do you tell the controller your contacting FS and tell the controller or do you ask the controller for the update directly?

Thanks 🙂

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JeffKanarish July 14, 2016 at 8:36 am

Hey Maxx,

Good question. I was sure I covered this somewhere in the website, but a search showed I did not. Here’s the routine.

Tell the enroute controller, “Skyhawk 9130 Delta would like to go off-frequency for 5 minutes.” ATC will answer one of 3 ways.

1. “Skyhawk 9130 Delta, frequency change approved. Report back on this frequency in 5 minutes.”

2. “Skyhawk 9130 Delta, before you go, traffic your 1 o’clock and 10 miles, opposite direction, a PA-28 at 5,000. Frequency change approved. Report back on this frequency in 5 minutes.”

3. “Skyhawk 9130 Delta, frequency change approved. When you return, check in with Atlanta Center on 127.8.”

I recommend you check your watch or cockpit clock and note the time. Next, switch to Flight Service for a weather update. Within 5 minutes, return to either your last assigned frequency or the new frequency issued by ATC. If you are returning to your previously assigned frequency, all you need say is, “Atlanta Center, Skyhawk 9130 Delta back on your frequency.” ATC will reply, “Skyhawk 9130 Delta, Atlanta Center, roger.” If you switch to a new frequency, do your standard VFR check-in, “Atlanta Center, Skyhawk 9130 Delta, 4,500, VFR.” ATC replies, “Skyhawk 9130 Delta, Atlanta Center. Maintain VFR and advise me before changing altitudes.” You, “Skyhawk 9130 Delta.”

Under routine circumstances, I would not ask the controller for a weather update. Doing so would pull him away from his primary job of controlling traffic.

This whole routine, and all of it’s variations is discussed in my book, Radio Mastery for VFR Pilots. I’ll add the topic to the next edition of the Radar Contact podcast. Thank you for asking, Maxx.

Jeff

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