VFR flight following is one of those magical yet underutilized services that many VFR pilots do not use either because of a lack of awareness, or lack of familiarity with the service, or because they are not very comfortable talking to ATC. As a VFR pilot, there is nothing more satisfying than knowing that there is a second set of eyes looking out for me and keeping me safe while flying.
What is VFR Flight Following?
VFR flight following is a real-time radar traffic monitoring service provided by ATC. As described in AIM 4-1-15, it is a Radar Traffic Information Service which focuses on traffic advisories and safety alerts. Essentially, it is like having a another set of eyes in the sky looking out for you and to notify you of other traffic that may be a risk factor on your path of flight.
Although flight following is a great tool that will undoubtedly help to keep you safe, there are a few caveats that you need to be aware of before we dive into the specifics of flight following. According to the AIM, pilots receiving this service are advised of any radar target observed on the radar display which may be in close 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. Additionally, this service is provided at the controller's discretion and on a workload permitting basis. While controllers are generally more than happy to help VFR pilots with flight following, their primary responsibility remains the separation of aircraft operating on IFR flight plans. Although I have never been denied flight following by a controller, many factors, such as limitations of the radar, volume of traffic, controller workload and frequency congestion, could prevent the controller from providing this service.
With the main caveats out of the way, let's examine the ways to obtain VFR flight following.
How to Request Flight Following Before Departure [On the Ground]
Although most pilots pick up flight following in the air, I fly out of a Class D airport so I generally start my flight following request on the ground with my initial radio calls to Ground Control [frequency]. If you are starting out at a towered airport (Class D or C airport), I highly encourage you to initiate your request while you are still on the ground. This will be one less thing you need to mess around with in the air and will reduce your workload so you can concentrate on flying. On your call to Ground, it may sound something like:
Pilot: "Crystal Ground, Cessna 12345 with request"
Crystal Ground: "Cessna 345, go ahead"
Pilot: "Cessna 345 requesting flight following to Duluth airport, Delta, Lima, Hotel"
Crystal Ground: "Cessna 345, remain clear of the Minneapolis Class Bravo airspace, departure frequency 126.5, squawk 4321"
Pilot: "Cessna 345, remain clear of the Class Bravo, departure frequency 126.5, squawk 4321"
Crystal Ground: "Cessna 345 readback correct"
How to Request Flight Following After Departure [In The Air]
The second, and probably the most common method of picking up VFR Flight Following is with Departure Control or Center after departure and already in the air on route to your destination. My recommendation for using this method is to make sure you notate the appropriate frequency on your kneeboard while on the ground so you don't have to fumble around looking for it in the air. The appropriate Departure or Center frequency for your departure airport can be found on the Sectional Chart or Chart Supplement Airport/Facility Directory (A/FD). If you use the ForeFlight or Garmin Pilot App on your iPad, you can generally find the correct frequency for your departure airport under the "Frequencies" section or tab within these Apps. Your radio call to departure may sound something like:
Pilot: "Minneapolis Departure, Cessna 12345 with request"
Minneapolis Departure: "Cessna 345, go ahead"
Pilot: "Cessna 345 is a Cessna 172 Skyhawk, 10 miles north of Crystal Airport, Mike, India, Charlie, at 3500 feet climbing to 5500 feet, VFR to Duluth airport, Delta, Lima, Hotel, request flight following"
Minneapolis Departure: "Cessna 345, squawk 4321 and Ident"
Pilot: "4321, Ident, Cessna 345"
Minneapolis Departure: "Cessna 345, radar contact 10 miles north of the Crystal airport at 3500 feet, Crystal altimeter 30.16, remain clear of the Class Bravo"
Pilot: "30.16 on the altimeter, remain clear of the Class Bravo"
Minneapolis Departure: "Cessna 345 readback correct"
Flight Following is great tool that should be used by all VFR pilots on short hops and on longer flights. With flight following, ATC not only helps you with traffic avoidance, but can also help with obstacle, airspace and weather avoidance as well as provide vectors to your destination. An added benefit of flight following is knowing that immediate assistance is available in case you encounter an emergency. If an emergency comes up, you’ll already be on the radio with an ATC facility so you can declare as such and request vectors to the nearest airport. If it is necessary for you to make an off-airport emergency landing, ATC will already have your position on radar. In either case, ATC can activate emergency response immediately rather than 30 minutes after the estimated time of arrival at your destination airport when only on a VFR flight plan.
Flight Following is wonderful service provided by ATC but as the pilot in command, you are in ultimate control and it is your responsibility to remain in compliance with FARs, and to aviate, navigate and communicate. One of the most important things to remember when on flight following is to actively monitor the frequency, listen, and respond to the ATC traffic advisories. Also, remember that VFR Flight Following is provided at ATC's discretion and on a workload permitting basis so ATC may choose to terminate the service at anytime during your flight.