VFR Flight Following–a pilots’ guide


Flight Following is an aircraft flying under VFR that is taking advantage of Air Traffic Control (ATC) services.

If “flight following” is a new term, don’t worry, you’re not alone. It’s not exactly a staple in many Private pilot training programs although many pilots may be receiving the servce and not even realize. Bottom line is that it’s a service that every VFR pilot should take advantage of and it could even be a lifesaver.

Flight following is a relatively simple concept–it’s an aircraft flying under VFR that is taking advantage of Air Traffic Control (ATC) services. Technically, it indicates the flight is radar identified by ATC and a number of advisories may be available from the controller.

Some of the mystique of VFR flight following is a function of it requiring ATC interactions which immediately invokes fear for many pilots. Because the service is provided on a workload permitting basis, and involves multiple layers of service, there’s not exactly uniform delivery among Center or Approach control facilities. The combination of these realities has resulted in misinformation, misunderstandings, and even no awareness of its existence.

So what is flight following?

What we refer to as VFR flight following is largely described in AIM, 4-1-15 (Radar Traffic Information Service) which focuses on traffic advisories. ATC will serve as another set of eyes in the sky to keep you apprised of other traffic targets that could be a threat. You also gain the benefit of safety alerts from ATC and perhaps even weather advisories.

Safety alerts can be issued by the controller for traffic, terrain or other obstructions and indicate an immediate threat. If you should hear the term “safety alert” on frequency, pay close attention and prepare to respond quickly. The red “CA” in this screen indicates a potential collision alert between the two radar-identified aircraft.

collision alert

The red “CA” in this screen indicates a potential collision alert.

As emphasized in the AIM, and is true in practice, flight following services and advisories are provided at the controllers’ discretion, and while controllers always strive to assist participating aircraft in every way possible, their primary responsibility is separating IFR traffic. Many factors, including workload and frequency congestion, could prevent the controller from providing advisories so it should always be viewed as a supplemental tool for seeing and avoiding traffic or other obstacles.

How do I obtain flight following?

Flight following can be available anywhere radar coverage is available which is extensive even at relatively low altitudes in the east. Radar coverage is spottier in the west, but generally available at normal cruise altitudes. For low-level, terminal radar coverage, you would generally need to be operating near a Class B or C airport or Class D with terminal radar service. If in doubt, ask the local pilots about the extent of coverage in the area and even the best frequencies for requesting service.


Consult your VFR chart for appropriate frequencies.

For locating the correct frequency to request flight following, consult the Chart Supplement (A/FD) or sectional chart for published Center or Approach control frequencies. Many GPS navigators and charting apps will also provide frequency information. But remember, even with radar coverage available, flight following is only provided on a workload-permitting basis, so it’s no guarantee, but always worth the request.

a/f d

The A/FD will provide ATC frequency information.

What do I say to ATC?

While not intended as added pressure, suffice it to say, a controller is more likely to accept and provide services to a pilot that doesn’t sound as if they will be overly burdensome. In other words, you should strive to sound like you know what you’re doing and have some self-awareness. No, this isn’t intended to be mean or unfair, it’s simply a controller protecting their primary obligation–separating IFR traffic (not providing VFR advisories).

Pilot talking on radio

The controller will want to know your present position, aircraft type/tail number, altitude, and your destination.

To help answer this important question of what information to provide and how to say it, we went to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) representing nearly 20,000 controllers across the country. The controller will want to know your present position, aircraft type/tail number, altitude, and your destination. There are important caveats.

If the controller is working a busy frequency, start with an initial call that provides your type/tail number and simply that you have a VFR request.

“Nashville Approach, Cessna 12345, VFR request.”

When the controller is in a position to receive a request, issue a code, and radar identify, you’re likely to hear a response similar to this:

“Cessna 12345, Nashville Approach, go ahead with your request.”

If there is some breathing room on frequency, it’s ok to minimize transmissions and provide more information in the initial call.

“Nashville Approach, Cessna 12345, three miles south of Lebanon at five-thousand, five-hundred, VFR to Greene County Airport, request flight following.”

When providing your destination, if it’s an airport located within range of that ATC facility, or a major metropolitan airport, it would be acceptable to provide the airport name or ID, but if you’re traveling a considerable distance, it’s best to stick with a major city and/or your on-course heading.

“Nashville Approach, Cessna 12345, three miles south of Lebanon at five-thousand, five-hundred VFR to Myrtle Beach, request flight following.”

controller screen

This is what the controller will see on his screen.

If traversing multiple facilities, it may also be acceptable to request hand-offs to subsequent ATC facilities. This eliminates the need to make initial calls with all of the requisite flight information as your flight information is passed along from one controller to the next. But keep in mind, this does require a little more effort on the part of the controller. If your flight following is terminated by ATC, you can always make a new request with the next facility.

“Nashville Approach, Cessna 12345, three miles south of Lebanon at five-thousand, five-hundred VFR to Myrtle Beach, request flight following with hand-offs.”

If ATC is able to accommodate your request, your next transmission will likely be a transponder “squawk” code.   As a VFR pilot, you may have flown exclusively with your transponder code set to 1200, if given flight following, you will be asked to enter a unique code.  The controller will advise when radar contact is established. As a VFR aircraft, altitude is the pilot’s discretion unless there has been an explicit assignment by ATC for traffic purposes. You should advise the controller of any altitude changes.

“Nashville Approach, Cessna 12345, climbing VFR to seven-thousand, five-hundred.”

How is a hand-off to another ATC facility handled?

If the controller has coordinated a hand-off, meaning your flight information has been passed on to the next facility and a new controller is awaiting your check-in, the instructions will sound similar to this:

“Cessna 12345, contact Memphis Center, one-two-eight, point two-two.”

If a hand-off was not coordinated, you may be provided a suggested frequency (or not) and your current squawk code will need to be reset to VFR, 1200. You can always tell whether a hand-off has been coordinated by whether the controller’s transmission is an instruction versus a suggestion.

“Cessna 12345, radar service terminated, squawk VFR. For further flight following, suggest Memphis Center on one-two-eight, point two-two.”

What are some Do’s and Don’ts of flight following?

  • DO listen up! Don’t make the controller’s job more difficult by missing your tail number on frequency.
  • DO have the applicable flight plan information at the ready (airport ID, requested altitude, on-course heading, etc.)
  • DO be an active participant in seeing and avoiding other air traffic.
  • DO monitor the emergency frequency, 121.5 so that you may be able to render assistance to other aircraft in need and also as a backstop in case ATC has difficulty raising you on the primary frequency. Often ATC will utilize the emergency frequency as a last resort to reach you.

Be an active participant if taking advantage of VFR Flight Following.

  • DON’T be the pilot who takes three calls to respond. See Do #1 – listen up!
  • DON’T assume ATC is taking full responsibility for other air traffic. Always watch for traffic.
  • DON’T rely on ATC for navigation. You may get an inquiry if it appears you’re straying well off course, but navigation remains the pilot’s responsibility.
  • DON’T rely on ATC for weather avoidance. Workload and equipment permitting, you may hear a weather advisory, but it’s completely discretionary and depends on the equipment available to the controller. You may inquire about potential weather hazards or request a frequency change to call flight service.

Does ATC consider flight following a nuisance or a bother?

To the contrary, often times an ATC facility would prefer an aircraft be on frequency as it eliminates a relative unknown (in terms of your intentions) and makes it easier for a controller to complete his primary task of separating IFR traffic. Be a good, considerate participant and you’ll get along swimmingly. 

radar screen

Participating in Flight Following can make it easier for a controller to complete his primary task.

Do I have to terminate flight following or will ATC do that?

It depends. If you’re ready to change to a local advisory frequency, you may initiate a termination of service.

“Nashville Approach, Cessna 12345, cancel radar service.”

If you need to leave the frequency briefly, you can make that request without terminating service.

“Nashville Approach, Cessna 12345, request a frequency change to call flight service.”

If you’re venturing outside of radar coverage, or if workload no longer permits flight following, it could be initiated by ATC.

“Cessna 12345, radar service terminated, squawk VFR, frequency change approved.”

What are the additional benefits of VFR flight following?

In addition to the obvious benefits of traffic advisories, safety alerts, and good situational awareness of surrounding traffic, VFR flight following can benefit you by:

  • Possibility of weather advisories or obvious course deviations
  • Benefits of hearing pilot reports
  • Benefit of hearing general weather advisory broadcasts such as convective SIGMETS
  • Practice and added confidence in interacting with ATC and listening to other communications
  • Providing helpful information and assistance in the event of an emergency such as vectors to the nearest airport

One of the benefits of Flight Following is quick assistance in an emergency.

If you had the choice of flying with a safety pilot or not, of course you would welcome a safety pilot. If you had the benefit of another trained aviation professional to assist you in an emergency, of course you would accept input. If you had a helping hand that could potentially provide safety alerts and even assist in weather avoidance, of course you would heed the advice. All of this and more is available to you FREE through our well-trained and capable air traffic controllers.

Download the NATCA Guide to VFR Flight Following.

flight following

Flight Following Guide from NATCA.

Ask a CFI: will I be tested on every item found in the ACS?

No, the examiner has some discretion on what elements are evaluated.


The examiner has some discretion on what elements are evaluated.

The goal of the airman certification process is to ensure the applicant possesses the knowledge, ability to manage risks, and skill consistent with the privileges of the certificate. There is no requirement for an examiner to test every knowledge and risk management element in a Task to accomplish this goal; rather the evaluator has discretion to sample as needed to ensure the applicant’s mastery of that Task. The required minimum elements to be tested from each applicable Task include:

• any elements in which the applicant was shown to be deficient on the knowledge test, as applicable;
• at least one knowledge element;
• at least one risk management element; and
• all skill elements unless otherwise noted in the ACS.

Knowledge and risk management elements are primarily evaluated on the knowledge test. The evaluator administering the practical test also has the discretion to combine Tasks/elements as
appropriate to testing scenarios. If the Task includes a knowledge or risk element with sub-elements, the evaluator may choose the primary element and select at least one sub-element to satisfy the requirement.



Video Tip: Aerodynamics of a Wing Stall

During your flight training you will practice stalling the airplane to help learn the low-speed handling characteristics of the airplane, and how to recover if an unintentional stall occurs. In this video tip we’ll look at how the airflow changes over the wing as it nears the critical angle of attack and eventually stalls.

The video clip below is from Sporty’s complete Learn to Fly Course.

Friday photo: Departure Runway 06 at Gastons (3M0), Lakeview Arkansas

The moment: Departure Runway 06 at Gastons (3M0)

The place: Lakeview, Arkansas

The pilot: Serrhel Adams

The aircraft: Cub Crafters X-Cub CC19-215

The memory: The Ozarks, with the hills, rivers, and lakes, have some of the most beautiful grass strips around.  The long evenings of summer, makes it such a great location for a relaxing flight.


Want to share your Friday Photo? Send your photo and description (using the format above) to: [email protected]

Video tip: 6 rules for VFR cross-country flights

Getting out of the traffic pattern and going on a real trip is a lot of fun. It may even be the reason you’re learning to fly in the first place. But the same reasons these trips are so much fun – new places to see, a goal at the end of the flight – can lead to challenges if you aren’t prepared. Here are six rules to keep in mind when you’re flying VFR cross-countries.

The video clip below is from Sporty’s complete Learn to Fly Course.

“NORDO” – 5 tips for avoiding loss of communication


NORDO is defined as an aircraft that can’t or doesn’t communicate by radio.

“NORDO” is a term defined in FAA Order 7110.65 (a.k.a. Air Traffic Controller’s Handbook) as an aircraft that can’t or doesn’t communicate by radio.  While the term can apply to an aircraft not certified with an electrical system (radio) or one that has suffered an equipment failure, it’s more commonly related to an inadvertent loss of communication. Whether a missed radio call/handoff, volume mishap, intercom snafu, or simply having flown out of transmitter range, the situation can have serious consequences especially on an IFR flight.

While I’m not able to support with scientific evidence, in my personal flying, it sure seems like I’m hearing more frequent occurrences of ATC searching for NORDO aircraft. This can be everything from repeated calls on an assigned frequency, open calls looking for aircraft on the emergency “guard” frequency (121.5), and direct requests for other aircraft to rebroadcast ATC transmissions to effectively extend transmitter range. Whether you’ve been witness to the same activity, or even caught up in a lost communication scenario, there’s likely additional steps we could be taking to cut down on the confusion, effort, and frequency congestion that results from the loss of communication.


Controllers are trained to use all appropriate means available to reestablish communications with NORDO aircraft.

Controllers are trained to use all appropriate means available to reestablish communications with NORDO aircraft. This can include using previously assigned frequencies, emergency frequencies, NAVAIDs, personal or company contact information provided in the flight plan, etc. But bear in mind, this effort takes time and resources and take controllers away from the task of working other air traffic. And in the case that communications have NOT been re-established with the suspect aircraft after just five minutes, the Controller’s Handbook indicates the controller should consider the pilot’s activity to be suspicious which would require a report to a supervisor and on up the chain of command.

While there is some discretion on when the five-minute clock may actually start, in the event that handoffs to other controlling sectors or facilities are missed, or other aircraft are forced to be diverted away from the NORDO aircraft, a report is most certainly forthcoming. The occurrence report may eventually make its way to the local FAA FSDO office who would have responsibility for investigating to determine whether a pilot deviation occurred. And the rest is not pleasant. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure as they say, so consider these five tips to keep you out of communication jeopardy.

1. Listen up! Easier said than done with the myriad of distractions that can be found on the flight deck. From advanced avionics to streaming music to needy passengers, distractions lurk. Remember the primary task at hand and not only commit to your own sterile cockpit rules, but encourage your passengers to take an active role in listening up on frequency for your tail number which will also prompt them to quiet down during the communication exchange. All quiet? Check your volume, recheck your frequency, and be alert to the possibility of a stuck mic.

2. Mind the volume (and squelch). On a busy frequency while attempting to concentrate on another task, or simply enjoy some solitude, it’s easy to be tempted into turning down the volume. Is your music being interrupted by garble on a distant frequency or frequency bleed over? Maybe you’re tempted to close the squelch. Engaged in a deep conversation with your passenger or instructor? Another tempting moment for a quick volume adjustment. All of these scenarios, however, make you susceptible to lost communication. Avoid the temptations and make sure all aspects of your communication radios are set before takeoff and periodically checked while enroute.

3. Monitor guard. The standby radio is available for more than just a backup or obtaining your IFR clearance. If you’re not already in the habit, always monitor the emergency frequency. 121.5 or “guard” is generally the first alternate frequency ATC will use in attempting to contact a NORDO aircraft. Further, if all pilots dutifully monitored guard, we’d have the opportunity to pick up an ELT broadcast, another aircraft in distress, and even help other pilots locate the appropriate frequency. As soon as you’ve left the terminal environment, tune in 121.5, monitor comm 2 through the intercom, and make sure that volume is up.

4. Ask for a radio check. Has the frequency gone mysteriously quiet? While a quiet frequency is not uncommon, if the change was abrupt, that’s a warning sign of a communication issue. Even on a quite frequency, if the silence continues for an extended period (5-10 minutes perhaps), a radio check may be in order. ATC would rather respond to a radio check than track down a NORDO aircraft, so error on the side of caution. Another option in advance of a radio check, or in concert, is to open the squelch on your radio to ensure range is not the issue. And then check using your backup comm radio. If range is suspected, likely there is another transmitter the controller has access to and you may ask for an alternate frequency or move to the step of locating an alternate frequency.

5. Anticipate frequencies. If you’re accustom to flying the same routes, you may have many of the communication frequencies memorized, but many of our modern, installed navigators are equipped with frequencies that you may attempt. Additionally, the enroute chart, chart supplement (A/FD) can be used to locate frequencies. Focus more on establishing contact with a facility (any facility) as opposed to the correct frequency. Timeliness in reestablishing communication is critical. Tools that controllers have at their disposal should make it reasonably easy to identify your correct frequency assignment or at least make a reasonable suggestion based on location.