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Training Tip: 'Contact the center'Training Tip: 'Contact the center'

Any student pilot who monitors air traffic control frequencies in flight or online for practice has followed along as aircraft are handed off from one ATC facility to another. A common example is hearing controllers instruct certain departing aircraft to contact “the center” when exiting the departure controller’s airspace or when climbing to cruise altitude.

FAA air route traffic control centers generally control aircraft operating on IFR flight plans, but can sometimes provide flight following for pilots operating under VFR. Photo by Chris Rose.

Of all the air traffic control facilities and functions a new pilot reads about, the FAA air route traffic control centers (ARTCCs) that mainly control aircraft operating on instrument flight rules (IFR) flight plans tend to be the least familiar—but don’t disregard them as a resource. Centers also can be fascinating places to tour, by appointment, on a rainy day.

Aeronautical Information Manual Section 4-1-1 explains that ARTCCs “are established primarily to provide air traffic service to aircraft operating on IFR flight plans within controlled airspace, and principally during the en route phase of flight.” The Pilot/Controller Glossary adds that “when equipment capabilities and controller workload permit, certain advisory/assistance services may be provided to VFR aircraft.”

Suppose you are exiting a departure control facility’s airspace on a solo cross-country, and the controller issues you a “radar services terminated, squawk 1200, frequency change approved” advisory. Instead of going it alone at that point, you could request continued flight following from the appropriate ARTCC. Perhaps departure control can arrange the hand-off for you.

Not talking to ATC? You can try to initiate radar service from the ARTCC. For example, an aircraft flying between northern Maine’s Houlton International Airport and Millinocket Municipal Airport might contact Boston Center on a frequency published in the airport’s listing in the chart supplement. Receiving service will depend on your location and altitude, and the center’s workload.

Review this page of the FAA website for a list of ARTCCs including links to several centers’ individual websites. As with airports and navaids, each ARTCC has an identifier: For Washington Center, it’s KZDC, or simply ZDC.

Each regional chart supplement volume provides data for ARTCCs in that region. Check the back pages for listings of frequencies (boldfaced frequencies for high-altitude aircraft) and locations of the numerous remote transmitter sites. ARTCCs monitor 121.5 MHz too.

Also, ARTCCs are commonly designated the controlling agency for temporary flight restrictions and special-use airspace—something all pilots need to know.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Associate Editor Web
Associate Editor Web Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 30-year AOPA member.
Topics: ATC, FAA publications, Student
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