Friday, July 24, 2009

VFR Flight Following

Using VFR flight following with Air Traffic Control (ATC) is great for small and large planes in VFR. I heard about it when I had my private pilot lessons, but never used it with my instructor. My first time using it was on my own. It made me nervous the first time, but it went smoothly and ATC was very nice. Each time it got a bit easier because you know what to expect. Now I use it frequently, and I think everybody should.

I found this web site which details the use of flight following pretty well. If you have not tried flight following yet or want a refresher, I recommend reading that web site.

Why Use Flight Following?

Flight following is great for many reasons, and I highly recommend it to all for cross countries or transitioning Class B or C airspace. Here is one web site that states nine reasons to use Flight following. AOPA Air Safety Foundation recommends instructors to teach their students about flight following now.

There is a web site on AOPA that answers some questions about VFR and IFR ATC communication. I just asked a few new questions to that web site, and I am curious to how long it takes for the question to get answered. There are a number that are already answered on there.

My Good Things about Flight Following

I find that flight following brings extra confidence from your passengers that are listening. They like to hear that you are talking to controllers and that you are on somebody's radar. Most non-aviation people are surprised that you can fly around without talking to ATC. Although, flight following is still not as practical for a local sight-seeing flight.

Flight following is good for helping spot nearby traffic. Sometimes the traffic that ATC will point out will be pretty far away and not easy to spot; some will be closer and important to find. If you can't spot them, ATC will often give you a vector to help with spacing to the traffic.

Flight following is good if anything happens in an emergency. You are still the pilot and the only one in the plane, but they will help where they can. AOPA has a short article and sound recordings of some emergencies where ATC helped; controllers are given a special Archie League Medal of Safety Award for this. If you do emergency land, help would start immediately to find you instead of waiting until your flight plan expires, and they would closer where you landed.

You can ask a little about weather (although FSS is more for that). Sometimes they will comment about weather head or near your vicinity. Controllers have something similar to XMweather available to them if they are not too busy.

Flying through and near Class B, C, D is easier with flight following. They coordinate your handoff and the controllers are expecting your call. Make sure you hear the words "Cleared into Class Bravo" before going into actual class Bravo airspace. If you think you will hit it and are not officially cleared, asked ATC. They will likely give you the clearance or ask you to turn a little to avoid it.

Flight following has the positives of IFR of talking with ATC, but is much more flexible because the flight path is under your control.

Practice with using flight following also will give you a jump start to working on your IFR rating. A lot of using the IFR system is getting used to talking with ATC while flying the plane.

If you might transition to an IFR flight plan, it expect it can make it easier to transition to an IFR flight plan. You can certainly go the other way to from IFR to VFR flight following.

Lots of good things about using flight following.... That is what I can think of quickly.

Higher Altitudes Sometimes Needed with Flight Following

With flight following, you may have to climb higher in some areas than you want. In the mountains, it depends on where radar is and what altitudes it can see airplanes. It varies depending on the area. Around Eagle/Vail and Rifle, there is radar to the ground. If near Gunnison or Alamosa, you have to be something like 13,000 or higher. In these situations, I like doing a VFR flight plan with Spot Tracking as described in my blog.

Other Notes

It is best to do VFR flight plan in addition to flight following. This also helps as a backup plan if ATC does not have time or need altitudes higher than you want.

At one point in the beginning I was nervous about how to switch frequencies for talking with FSS. It is much easier that I thought back then and is usually no big deal. Switching frequencies for weather or PIREP ok. Just ask the controller. If they don't want you to swith right now, they likely can do it in a couple minutes or after the next controller handoff.

Giving PIREPs is useful for lots of reasons and AOPA has a course to talk you through Pireps. I maintain a list of items that are asked for in PIREPs and prepare ahead of giving the PIREP so that I can give them quickly and easily over the radio. The Skyspotter course gives you a list you can use or modify.

Flight following sounds like a lot of radio communication when in Class Bravo, but minimal will be for you. Away from dense airport areas, the radio communication is usually minimal overall for everybody. ATC is very friendly and is use to different levels of experience. Practicing a little ways outside of Class Bravo first can be a way to get your feet wet. None of the Class Charlies I have been in have been very hard so that would be another place to start. You can also glance at my comments about how to get comfortable with talking with ATC. Most of the web accessible controller communication is for busier airports, so the aviation band scanner may be the better way.

Controllers are here to help the pilots. First IFR traffic, then VFR traffic. They would not have jobs if we were not here or did not use them. So all the controllers I have talked with personally say they try to be very accomodating to all pilot requests.


I plan on following this up with another blog post about an example flight following conversation. Look for it soon. Hopefully, it will answer questions on typical radio communication. It is something that I wish I had when I started, so I will write it down soon.

Everybody should use flight following on cross country trips if possible. If you don't use it yet, make a promise to yourself to try it out.



Todd - said...

Great post. I am glad to hear I was not the only one that was not trained on the actually process of using Flight Following by my CFI. We discussed it a few times but never used it in our training. For a while after learning to fly I did not use it because I was too worried I might goof up a radio call. I use it all the time now and find it a very valuable resource when available.

Brian said...

I just noticed an article on AOPA about Flight Following.