Teach The Value Of VFR Traffic AdvisoriesI know a number of pilots - some of them flight instructors - who won't speak to ATC unless it's absolutely necessary. Oh, sure - they'll talk to tower and ground, or to radar controllers when they're flying IFR, but VFR traffic advisories - forget it. There are some solid reasons why CFIs should use VFR radar services, and introducing students to ATC early in the training process will ensure that they'll be comfortable with controllers when it's time for solo flight. Make sure your students know how to succinctly report position and altitude and request VFR traffic advisories, commonly called flight following. If the destination is unfamiliar to the controller, ATC will want to know the approximate heading that the pilot will be flying.
It's difficult to spot all the traffic around us, and we're all concerned about the aircraft we don't see that may be out there. Obviously flight following gives you another participant in collision avoidance, and knowing where to look makes traffic acquisition easier. It's frustrating but not unusual to have traffic called to us that we fail to spot. If we get too close to that transparent traffic, controllers can suggest headings or altitudes to avoid it. Radar service does not change the fact that the PIC is primarily responsible for collision avoidance, but CFIs especially can benefit from some extra collision avoidance help if they become distracted by giving in-flight instruction.
Just listening on the appropriate frequency will give you a better idea of the traffic situation in your area. Of course you may not know what that frequency is unless you're talking and squawking. Controllers can't state your altitude as a fact until they've confirmed it with you. If a controller advises, "VFR traffic one o'clock and five miles. Altitude indicates three thousand five hundred," you know that traffic isn't talking to ATC. Altitude unknown means the pilot is either not squawking mode C or the transponder is off and ATC is seeing a primary radar return. If the traffic is participating in IFR or VFR ATC services the controller will state the altitude and aircraft type. That makes it easier to spot and identify.
We know it doesn't happen very often - and when it does, it's always the other guy - but, if an emergency situation should occur, it's great to already be talking to ATC. If we're equipped with two radios we should monitor 121.5 MHz anyway, but a call on the already established coordination frequency will get things going a little quicker. Once ATC is apprised of your situation they may give you a discrete frequency for dedicated emergency assistance.
Especially in metropolitan areas ATC may assign vectors to VFR traffic that it's working. This is done to expedite traffic flow and provide safe separation between aircraft of widely differing performance. Controllers assume that you'll want to revert to your own navigation as soon as possible and therein can be the genesis of a problem. Be sure to maintain your positional awareness while on vectors. That way you won't have to paraphrase a conversation overheard recently in the Los Angeles area.
"November [designation withheld] resume own navigation. Radar service terminated. Frequency change approved."
Pause - "Don't leave me!"
"Aircraft calling Approach, say again."
"You've had me on vectors for half an hour. I'm unfamiliar with the area. I don't know where I am and it's getting dark."
The controller told the pilot to remain on the transponder code, suggested a heading for the pilot's destination, and handed him off to the next sector.
Flight following can also help with weather avoidance but, with the possible exception of turbulence, VFR advisories should be used to confirm your own in-flight observations. If the weather's too thick to see ahead, you should be IFR or on the ground. As with collision avoidance, listening to other traffic will give you a better idea of weather conditions ahead. Requests for weather information should be for the immediate area and be limited to what the controller can see on radar or hear from other traffic. For more distant and detailed weather, contact flight service on the appropriate frequency or Flight Watch on 122.0 MHz. While you're getting the weather be sure to submit a pirep. Once again this will get your student used to giving as well as receiving the important information that pireps convey. For more information on pireps see AOPA Online ( www.aopa.org/asf/skyspotter ).
So far we've discussed the benefit to pilots, but flight following benefits ATC as well. Transponder-equipped flights are required to squawk 1200 mode C, and that alone will alert controllers to our presence. But telling ATC where we're going allows them to plan for traffic situations ahead. This is especially important in these trying times. Participating in ATC services transforms you from an unknown target with unknown intentions to a known flight with a stated destination. That goes a long way toward lowering the blood pressure of folks working security-sensitive airspace. Controllers will be happy to assist you in avoiding prohibited areas and temporary flight restriction airspace. They'll breathe easier knowing that they're dealing with a cooperative professional instead of a possible security threat.
John Steuernagle, former vice president of operations for the Air Safety Foundation, is currently a program development consultant.
By John Steuernagle