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Flight following

A buddy along for the ride

The correct term is “VFR traffic advisories” but most people call it “flight following”—a highly useful service air traffic control provides to VFR pilots, workload permitting.

Illustration by Charles Floyd

Click on image for high-res version.

Think of flight following as someone watching out for you as you motor along in the national airspace system. ATC can provide weather updates, traffic advisories, the status of temporary flight restrictions, and more. One air traffic controller compares it to taking a hike in the wilderness: When you file a flight plan, you’ve let someone know you’re going on the hike. When you ask for flight following, it’s like taking a buddy with you into the woods.

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Requesting flight following

On the ground: At a towered airport, you can request flight following from ground control or sometimes clearance delivery.

Requesting flight following

In the air: Dial in the closest approach control or center frequency.

Call ATC: Give your aircraft identification, location, and your request (flight following). ATC will assign you a squawk code, which you should dial into your airplane’s transponder. They will look for you on their display.

“Manchester Approach, Cherokee 12345.”

“Cherokee 12345, Manchester Approach.”

“Cherokee 12345 over Concord VOR at 6,500, en route Trenton Mercer, request flight following.”

“Cherokee 12345, squawk 5120.”

“Squawk 5120, Cherokee 12345.”

Tell ATC: Any additional information, such as type of aircraft and destination.

When ATC spots you, they will advise you that they have radar contact and give you the current altimeter setting.

Tell ATC: Communicate any changes in your altitude, route, or destination. Remember you are still VFR, so you’re responsible for your route and altitude and will still need a clearance to enter airspace that requires one. As you move from sector to sector of airspace, ATC will “hand you off” to the next facility by informing you to switch radio frequencies and will give you the frequency to use. Unless advised otherwise, keep your squawk code. (If you can’t reach the next facility on the new frequency, go back to the previous one. ATC may have made an error or you may have miscopied the frequency.)

Check in with ATC: Let the new center know you are now listening to them by giving your N number and altitude. They will acknowledge and give you the current altimeter setting.

Sometimes ATC may tell you that they cannot pick you up on the radar because of your altitude. In that case, you can try to call another center, or else squawk 1200 and continue to your destination.

Tell ATC: When you have your destination in sight, you may tell ATC that you no longer need flight following.

Jill W. Tallman
Jill W. Tallman
AOPA Technical Editor
AOPA Technical Editor Jill W. Tallman is an instrument-rated private pilot who is part-owner of a Cessna 182Q.

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