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Training Tip: Class conflictTraining Tip: Class conflict

If air traffic control is “following” your flight, who is leading it?

While you might receive flight following from an air traffic control facility, never forget you are the one leading the flight. Photo by Mike Fizer.

You are—and there are times when it pays to keep that in mind while receiving VFR traffic advisories, also known as flight following, from an ATC facility such as a terminal radar approach control (tracon).

Suppose you take off on a cross-country flight that will take you overhead an airport in Class D airspace—that is, an airport with an operating control tower. You have called up to request flight following from the tracon that provides radar flight following service in your area, and you have been issued a code to enter in your Mode C transponder and have heard the controller confirm radar contact.

The Class D airspace ceiling up ahead is 2,800 feet msl, and you were planning to overfly it at 3,500 feet eastbound. But an overcast in the area is lower than was forecast, so you are approaching the Class D airspace boundary at 2,000 feet to maintain VFR conditions.

Is your flight authorized to proceed through the Class D airspace?

This isn’t Class B airspace, which you would not fly through without receiving specific clearance into the airspace.

It isn’t Class C airspace, which requires you to establish two-way communications—a step you have already taken.

This is Class D airspace, and you remember learning that “when arriving, departing, or passing through Class D airspace, communications must be established with the tower.”

Today, however, you are already in contact with ATC in the person of the tracon’s radar controller, who has issued no cautions about your imminent penetration of the Class D airspace ahead. Does that suffice as the required two-way communications?

No. The catch is that the tracon is not the controlling agency for the Class D airspace. This is an odd scenario—and fortunately, an uncommon one—in which it is necessary for the VFR pilot to work with two ATC facilities simultaneously.

Typically, the radar controller will work out your passage with the tower, according to controller Joseph Mash, who addressed the issue in this AOPA Air Safety Institute Ask ATC video.

But if you have any doubt, take charge by asking whether you should switch frequencies and call the tower.

"It’s the best way to handle it for sure,” Mash said.

Have you faced an unclear airspace scenario? Share it at AOPAHangar.com.

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: Airspace, Student, Communication
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